The future of Pakistan People’s Party

The last chance saloon
By Irfan Husain
Saturday, 31 Oct, 2009 (Dawn)
Despite his many limitations, Asif Zardari has tried to fill the huge void left in the PPP after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.— Photo from File

LEGEND has it that at the edge of many towns in the old American West stood a last chance saloon where cowboys could get a final drink before setting off to spend months in the open prairies.

More and more, the presidency is coming to resemble this mythical watering hole where all manner of dubious characters gather.

Talking to a senior PPP figure, I got the sense that the old guard are aware that this is the last time the party is likely to come to power. A number of those in authority and their front men appear therefore determined to rake it in while they can.

If they were also providing the country with decent governance and decisive leadership, we could perhaps put up with ministers sticking their snouts into the public trough. But back in Pakistan on a brief visit, I find the same power shortages, a mounting insurgency and runaway inflation. In addition, we have the ongoing scandal of the sugar shortage.

All countries have problems of one sort or another, even though we seem to be blessed with more than our share. But elsewhere, there is usually an attempt to come to grips with them. Islamabad currently appears to be good only for issuing statements increasingly divorced from reality.

There is a lot of realism in the tacit admission that this is probably the PPP’s last stint in power. Quite apart from this government’s abysmal track record over the last 18 months or so, demographic forces have been quietly at work to marginalise Pakistan’s biggest and most popular party.

Even a cursory analysis of last year’s general elections will reveal that the PPP’s power base is now limited to rural Sindh and southern Punjab, also a largely rural area. It has been virtually eliminated as a political force in Pakistan’s major cities. With the PML-N dominating north and central Punjab, and the MQM calling the shots in Karachi and Hyderabad, the PPP is being squeezed in areas where it was at least competitive earlier.

This trend has been evident for some time now, but the PPP chose to do nothing to arrest it. Increasingly, the rising Pakistani middle class looks to more than the traditional PPP promise of roti, kapra aur makan. They want good governance, education, security and employment. And unfortunately for the PPP, they think that the PML-N is the party that can deliver on these key issues.

Despite his many limitations, Asif Zardari has tried to fill the huge void left in the PPP after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. And to be fair to him, he has managed to keep the ship of state afloat by attempting to bring Nawaz Sharif on board, and forging some kind of consensus in the fight against terrorism. But at the end of the day, leadership is about more than backroom deals.

By withdrawing to the presidency and surrounding himself with cronies, Zardari is doing himself no favours. Another problem is the abundance of black hair dye on display in cabinet meetings. This underlines the absence of younger members at the upper levels of the party hierarchy. While experience is all very well, the PPP could certainly do with some energy, dynamism and fresh ideas. Above all, it could do with some idealism.

And although Bilawal Zardari Bhutto is being groomed for a future role as party leader, I’m afraid he does not appear to be cut out for the job. I saw him in London last year when he addressed a press conference soon after his mother’s murder. While he came across as a sensible and articulate young man, I thought then that he lacked the fire in the belly that set his mother and grandfather apart.

Never having lived in Pakistan for any length of time as an adult, and speaking little Urdu, I do not see him capturing the hearts of the PPP jiyalas as his mother and grandfather did.

Even more serious is the security threat he would be under were he to campaign in future elections. The reality is that the Bhuttos have many enemies in Pakistan, and not just from among the Taliban. Minus the Bhutto charisma and given the changing map of Pakistani politics, I do not see how the PPP can avoid the fate of being in permanent opposition.

If one adds the failure of leadership it is currently displaying to this depressing mix, I can visualise the PPP breaking up once the glue of power evaporates after the next election. Again, it was Benazir Bhutto’s personality that held the party together. The downside to her grip on the party was her unwillingness to encourage a strong second tier to emerge that could take over if the need arose.

For me, this analysis is tinged with considerable sadness. Ever since it came into being over four decades ago, I have supported the PPP. While I have been critical of many of its policies and politicians, I have broadly approved of what it stood for, even though it seldom delivered on its promises. Nevertheless, by at least addressing the concerns of the poor and the oppressed, it positioned itself as a champion of women, the minorities and the marginalised.

Even now, I find myself hoping that somehow it will drag itself up as it has done in the past. Alas, I just do not see the kind of leadership needed for this miracle to come to pass. The truth is that given his close proximity to religious extremism, I cannot support Nawaz Sharif and his faction of the Muslim League. I have always opposed the politics of ethnicity, so that rules out the MQM, despite its secular moorings. Obviously, I could never support army rule or a theocracy.

I suspect this is the dilemma many thinking Pakistanis face today. Many have stood behind the PPP over the years, but now find themselves frustrated and isolated. While I fervently hope this government will complete its term of office, I fear that deprived of the claim that it was not allowed to govern for five years, it will have its last electoral card trumped.

Finally, I do wish Zardari would stir out of his presidential bunker once in a while to express his sympathy for the victims of terrorism. It might pose a security risk, but as the old saying goes, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.