November Issue 2017

By | Cover Story | Published 3 weeks ago

In the 1980s, two things riveted the imagination of the Pakistani multitudes: the Indian film Noor Jahan and Benazir Bhutto. The appeal of the first was confined to the cinema halls, but Benazir was everywhere – in the rallies she addressed, thronged by hundreds of thousands; on television screens; in conversations at the meetings held by worried political opponents to discuss how to counter the challenge she posed; and in the hearts of the public, soul-weary after the long night of Zia-ul-Haq’s draconian martial law. The slogans Benazir aiyee hai inquilab laiyee hai (Benazir has come, she has brought a revolution) and Jiye Bhutto, Benazir, (long live Bhutto, long live Benazir) resounded across the country. A friend recalls how even at a mehndi (henna) ceremony at the house of a military general in Islamabad, boys and girls danced to the tune created around the slogan of Jiye Bhutto, Benazir being played on the stereo. It was only when Begum Shafiqa Zia-ul-Haq arrived at the venue that the music was turned off, to save her and the host embarrassment.

But all that was then. With the passage of time, the romance with Benazir and her party dimmed. This, even in the Bhuttos’ ancestral constituency of Sindh, as the custodians of the province – not to mention the country – yielded only despair for the people, and Sindh became the most graphic indicator of the cause of this despair. Today, after years of neglect and misgovernance, the salient features of Sindh’s landscape include streets and pavements littered with heaps of garbage, eddies of drainage water from broken sewerage lines, and pools of stagnant water accumulated in potholes on city roads after heavy deluges. This against a backdrop of hoardings carrying portraits of Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur, alongside Bhutto-Zardari scion, Bilawal, à la portraits of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir. “The landscape of the interior of Sindh presents as an area ravaged by natural calamity or war,” says Irfan Malik, a New York-based Punjabi poet who recently had the chance to drive through the interior of the province.

So the question arises: is the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – the creation of which was announced by its founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto at the residence of another founder member, Dr Mubashir Hasan, in Lahore 50 years ago – now dead, interred along with the Bhuttos at Garhi Khuda Bakhsh?

The People’s Party was the reincarnation of the Sindh People’s Party founded in 1926 by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s father, Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto. Under Bhutto Junior, the party saw glory and power, and was subsequently passed on to the third generation in the person of Benazir Bhutto. But thereafter, started the decline. The country’s fortunes plummeted as charges were levelled, leaders were arrested, hopes dashed, and a general climate of disenchantment prevailed. And yet, misrule, corruption and neglect notwithstanding, PPP governments came, were sent packing, only to return over and again. Clearly the party isn’t over yet.

A case in point: four jiyalas, all of them jobless, remain steadfast to the party, despite their fealty having achieved nothing – not even a promise for the future. Among them is Shazad Shafi, a graduate from the prestigious University of Business and Sciences Management at Lahore (IBM). Benazir was Shafi’s first and, he maintains, last political love. He certainly has the credentials to validate this: In October 2007, when Benazir returned to Pakistan, Shafi ran away from his home in Lahore to come to Karachi just to catch a glimpse of her, and ended up being one of the survivors of the carnage that resulted from the terror attack when Bhutto’s procession reached Karsaz. It was not Shafi’s first foray into the PPP arena. Since he developed a fascination for Benazir and the party she led, he has religiously followed the assorted PPP caravans that have been assembled, as they move across cities and towns across the country and stop for public rallies.

Shafi hails from a peasant family from the Seraiki-speaking belt. He is from a generation of PPP activists who joined the party in the later years of Benazir’s life, and only really became politically and ideologically aware after her assassination. Like many diehard Bhutto supporters, Shafi also frequents the Bhuttos’ mausoleum at Garhi Khuda Baksh at every opportunity he gets, and he refers to these visits as ‘pilgrimages.’ His most recent pilgrimages have been the public rallies of Bilawal Bhutto in Sahiwal, Punjab, and in Hyderabad, Sindh.

Says Shafi, “Many from my generation have joined the PPP even after Benazir’s death. This is because Asif Ali Zardari has managed to keep the party alive.” And while he concedes, “it may not be a party inspired by the likes of Che Guevara, it may be a federalist party, but it remains the only party which gives national cohesion since it represents the people of all the provinces.” This aside, Shafi admits that there has been a decline in the party’s popularity in the Punjab, but simultaneously he says it is not on account of their failings, but it’s because of “the hostile government” at the centre and how that has played out in damaging the party.

The facts on the ground graphically illustrate that the PPP has unarguably lost its popular base in the city of its birth, Lahore, and also in the rest of the Punjab. A glaring example of this: PPP candidate Faisal Mir bagged a mere 1500 votes in the recently concluded by-polls in NA 120 in Lahore. However, according to Shafi, who helped canvas for Mir – the younger brother of Geo anchor, Hamid Mir – it is a fact that NA 120, comprising Sant Nagar and Krishna Nagar, has traditionally been a Pakistan Muslim League (N) constituency, and that intra-party rifts and rivalries exist among the party leadership in Punjab which, he contends, engendered the rout. He adds, “The PPP’s candidate in Punjab was, in fact, defeated by the PPP leaders of Punjab themselves, because as a new entrant, no one wanted Mir to get close to the party’s central leadership. The party in Punjab has essentially sold out, except Yousuf Raza Gillani, who has made sacrifices for the party.” And, contends the ever optimistic PPP jiyala, even if the outcome of the forthcoming 2018 elections are not in our favour, the results in 2023 will definitely be. The party will endure.”

Doctor Amna Buttar, a former member of the Punjab Assembly, does not concur. She contends that the rot had set in even in the time of Benazir Bhutto herself. “Anyone who would complain to BB that someone in the party was close to the intelligence agencies or the army – ie. rat on a party colleague – would be given a prized post in the party by her,” says Buttar. Masood Munawar, a PPP supporter and poet in exile during the Zia regime, maintains that “the party actually died with the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto because Benazir Bhutto ignored senior party leaders activists and supporters.” And they were not the only ones left out of the loop.

History demonstrates that the women activists of the PPP in Punjab have also suffered over the years, ignored and unacknowledged despite their loyalty to the party. Women activists like Sajeda Mir and Shahida Jabeen were among this group, even during the days the party was led by the Bhutto women. In the days of opposition to the Sharif government particularly, the Punjab women activists of the PPP were strategically manipulated by the party to show the press how they were hapless victims in the hands of the Sharif government in the Punjab. A female party activist discloses, on condition of anonymity, how the women were used by the Punjab party leadership dominated by men.

This was confirmed by Nahid Khan, Benazir Bhutto’s political secretary till the latter’s assassination at Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi. Khan was in New York last May with her husband, former PPP Senator, Dr Safdar Abbasi, who had been in the PPP since he was a young student and had worked with Benazir while she was in self-exile in London during the Zia military dictatorship. Abbasi maintained,” I do not feel as sorry about what the current PPP leadership has done with the party as I do about the fact that the old veterans could not resist its destruction.” So did the party die with Benazir, I asked Nahid Khan. “Only time will tell,” she responded, “but the indicators seem to point in that direction.”

There are multiple reasons for pessimism. In spite of the PPP’s five-year rule at the centre, and its place in the presidency, the inaction in regard to bringing Benazir Bhutto’s assassins to justice, and the veterans and old guard – the true loyalists of the party – being ignored or purged from party officers, only to be replaced by leaders like Wattoo and Qasim Zia at the top in the Punjab PPP, are among two of the main reasons that have led to the disenchantment and frustration among the party rank and file. “Understandably then, the party’s constituency has been reduced to rural Sindh, where only those remain attached to the party who need favours like jobs and lands, etc.,” said Abbasi.

Then there are the sporadic events that keep occurring which engender distaste in party ranks. In May, the activists in Punjab were visibly angry when they saw a diehard Piplliya, Junaid, being beaten and stripped off his clothes on the stage which had been set for Bilawal Bhutto’s reception in Lahore. And that was not a one-off incident. Bilawal Bhutto’s security guards dealt people Kung Fu-style blows when they came on the streets to welcome him in Larkana last year.

More insults to the people – this time the people of Sindh, the last PPP bastion – came from the Sindh Assembly speaker, Agha Siraj Durrani. When a voter complained about his not showing up at his constituency for a long period, Durrani responded by saying, “I urinate over your votes. I’ve always relied more on my personal relationships than your votes.” And Faryal Talpur, Asif Zardari’s sister, added insult to injury in her address to voters in Qambar during the by-polls, when, rather than soliciting their support, she arrogantly declared, “You must bear in mind that there is only one candidate you can vote for, and the candidate is that of the PPP. You have to vote for him.” The People Party’s feudal lord of the Chandios, Sardar Khan Chandio meanwhile, dubbed the votes “bin takan jo vote” (votes worth two paisas). This kind of rhetoric has rendered the PPP unpopular, even if still a powerbroker in Sindh, its drawing power its bargaining chips, similar to Pir Pagaro’s (Functional) Muslim League. Local sardars and pirs have joined, defected and then rejoined the party time and again. These include single seat chief ministers like Jam Sadiq Ali, Muzaffar Hussain Shah, Liaquat Ali Jatoi and Arbab Ghulam Rahim, many of them turncoats, who have, over three decades, been collaborators with successive regimes, enjoying the blessings of Islamabad and the GHQ Rawalpindi.

And yet despite all this, despite the disillusionment and loss of hope, the party has managed to survive. This because, quite simply, the people have not yet found any other alternative to the PPP. And it is not the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) card that is the key to the party’s ability to survive, nor is it the party’s new leadership. It is the graveyard of the Bhuttos which is that umbilical cord which still binds the people of Sindh to the mother party. The recent demonstration of the power of the party’s past was witnessed at Bilawal’s recently-held public rally in Hyderabad, Sindh, where he was seen sharing tears with the bereaved mother of one of those martyred in the Karsaz terror attack during Benazir’s procession in October 2007. So while the new and young entrants to the party are oblivious of even the number of years that have elapsed since that carnage and were seen giggling and cracking jokes with each other when the son of their slain leader and mother of their fallen comrade wept at the rally, the Bhutto mystique still lingers.

As Amar Sandhu, a noted human rights activist for women says, “Sindhi intellectuals and civil society should, like the masses, draw a line between the Zardaris, Faryal Talpur and the Bhuttos.” There are others, however, who think that Zardari has played a master card by making Bilawal barter his tears for votes. But how long this can be played out and the sympathy vote garnered by the party, remains to be seen.