December Issue 2013

By | Newsline Special | Published 6 years ago

We know that in personal relations, the pain of being jilted in love is hard to bear. It is almost the same in a political context for the traditional supporters of the Pakistan People’s Party. They feel betrayed by a party they believed was this country’s ultimate defence against the vile forces of religious extremism and social obscurantism.

In fact, the question that has reverberated in my mind for some years is whether the PPP, the party of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto, can survive under the leadership of Asif Ali Zardari. The evidence we have is damning. This is so in spite of the opportunity that Zardari got to complete an entire term, with his party leading the federal government. Both ZAB and BB never had this kind of reprieve.

Now, when I express some thoughts about what has happened to the PPP, I should resist the temptation of lapsing into nostalgia for what it was like during those lost years of hope and struggle. As the poet William Wordsworth said, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” At least to the extent that we could hear the rumblings of a social revolution.
Yes, I am old enough to remember the birth of a party that revolutionised the complexion of politics in this country. As a young journalist, I almost became a participant in that great upsurge of popular expectations. ZAB will, of course, remain an enigma in Pakistan’s history with his many contradictions, but the manner in which he aroused the under-privileged of this land is the stuff of which dreams are made.

In many respects, the story of the PPP is woven into the drab fabric of our politics as a splash of sparkling red. There was the trauma of ZAB’s execution and the brave defiance of the party during the long night of Zia’s Martial Law. Finally, we had to suffer the calamity of BB’s assassination on December 27, 2007. As I said, we have our memories that we should momentarily put aside and deal with the present reality that stirs nightmarish thoughts about the future of PPP.

How could the legacy of a great movement for change be frittered away in this manner? It may be argued that the party expired with the assassination of Benazir. After all, she personified the party in her charismatic brilliance. No other leader had been so forthright in opposing the jihadi sentiments in our politics. She had the courage to resist the dark forces of religious militancy. Without her, the party was apparently lost in the wilderness.

However, her assassination became a gift for the party because it came just before the elections of 2008 and the PPP was carried to power on the wave of sympathy. Benazir, in her absence, won the elections and Zardari eased himself into the driving seat. Here, then, was a great opportunity to carry on with the party’s liberal agenda without going through the rigours of a real contest for gaining power. The task did not seem too difficult. All that the new leadership of the party had to do was to keep a steady hand on the rudder and make an honest effort to follow the principles with which the party was identified.

What actually transpired under Zardari’s leadership was just the opposite. Most assessments of the PPP-led government’s performance while it was in power for five years, until the elections in May this year, focus on the dismal quality of governance and on the rampant corruption by Zardari’s cronies. But if you look more carefully, a larger tragedy was the party’s deviation from its liberal path and its lack of will to confront the rising forces of fanaticism and militancy. It would appear that the party surrendered without a fight. An even more hurtful observation would be to say that it joined the enemy.

We have the example of how the party responded to the assassination of its own leader, Salman Taseer, to illustrate this point. The party abjectly surrendered to the violent religious elements that came out to celebrate the murder of the governor of the Punjab by one of his own guards, someone duty-bound to protect him. The PPP was unable even to offer fateha for the departed soul in the parliament. Just thinking about all that should make one shudder.

I am aware of one specific explanation offered by Zardari when someone complained about his party’s stance in the wake of Salman Taseer’s murder. “We don’t want to take them on,” he said. He was referring to the fury of the supporters of the assassin. What did this mean? It will be interesting to interpret this attitude. At one level, it was an admission of defeat. It amounted to saying, sorry, we do not defend what we believe in. Ah, but why do you still want to stay in power?

Come to think of it, Salman Taseer’s murder could also have been seized as an opportunity to launch a struggle against the onslaught of religious fanaticism and it was a test of the party’s political competence to devise a viable strategy to make a counter-offensive. It may have waited for the popular passions to subside. Even in an indirect manner, without any reference to Salman Taseer, the party could have mobilised the liberal and progressive opinion in the country to strengthen its potential constituency.

One has to comprehend the tragedy of how the PPP has weakened and even subverted the liberal cause to understand the pain of the party’s devoted followers. And this tragedy is heightened by the fact that these followers now have nowhere else to go. Whether the PPP can still survive — and it may be content with playing its Sindh card — is not the issue. What we have lost is a dream that can hardly be revived. Our kingdom of hope lies in ruins.

I have used the Salman Taseer episode as a parable. The PPP was given one more chance to redeem itself and show the courage of its convictions when the Taliban attempted to murder Malala Yousafzai in October last year. This could have been a catalyst for a concerted action against the Taliban. This time, the emotional mood of the nation was more conducive to taking action against the terrorists. Again, the PPP remained in a state of paralysis.

Irrespective of how PPP’s old fans and supporters feel about the waywardness of the party’s present leadership, we had a proper measure of what the people think about the party in the elections held in May. The party was routed in the Punjab. It still has Sindh, on the strength of its rural constituency. We need not go into the dynamics of Sindh’s politics at this time. It might show that the Bhutto phenomenon is still breathing.

But Sindh, in the context of how the PPP has governed it, is itself a great example of how the party has lost its sense of direction. You only have to compare Sindh with Punjab to realise that the PPP does not really care about the people who have kept it alive. All you need to do is to take a journey through interior Sindh and finally arrive at the graves of ZAB and BB. There, you may offer fateha for a dream that has died.

Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.