November Issue 2014

By | News & Politics | Published 5 years ago

It was just about a week after the May 11 elections last year that I began my weekly column with the words written above. I remember getting rather emotional about it. After all, the Bhutto phenomenon, with all its magic and mystification, had remained my point of reference in exploring and interpreting the political landscape in Pakistan for almost four decades.

A constant theme was the survival of the party, irrespective of the vile machinations of the establishment. I would win all my bets during and after the long night of Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s martial law when Bhutto haters intermittently prophesied the decline or even the demise of the party. I had closely watched, sometimes in awe, the emergence and rise of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s charismatic leadership. This was a glorious chapter in Pakistan’s history. When I look back, I am intrigued by the overlap of the popular awakening that Bhutto had led in Pakistan with the global uprising of the young, particularly in Europe and America. Perhaps, those were different times.

What is it like now, in this time of Islamic radicalism? The column I wrote in May 2013 was titled: “Is the PPP still relevant?” To a large extent, thoughts prompted by the routing of the party from Punjab in May last year remain valid. But on October 18, 2014, the party proclaimed a new beginning, with a young leader. The torch has been passed to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Can he recover the dreams that are buried under the debris of Asif Ali Zardari’s five years in power? Can he earn popular sanction for his political inheritance? Can he inspire the young of today as his maternal grandfather had roused the young in the late sixties?

I have a problem in dealing with these questions because of how I feel about the party and the role of the Bhutto phenomenon, in spite of some fatal flaws of that charismatic glory. Now, to borrow words of a poet, I have a lover’s quarrel with the PPP. A beloved infidel it has become. Besides, I am overwhelmed by memories when I think of ZAB and Benazir Bhutto. I am old enough to recall that trauma of an execution in the small hours of April 4, 1979. I cherish the memory of a young woman taking oath as the prime minister of Pakistan. That was an unforgettable vindication of the struggle of a party that had stirred immortal longings in the hearts of the common people. I was also privileged to have known Benazir Bhutto, but this is not the occasion to invoke those personal encounters. There was a time when I had collected a lot of material, with a cache of anecdotes, about ZAB to write about that ‘prince of our disorders.’

000_Del163668All these memories interfere with any attempt to make an assessment of the party’s present status. What hurts most is that it still has a larger reservoir of enlightened human resource than any other political party of the country. But its leadership, with specific reference to its performance in power at the centre, has almost been a betrayal. This stint in power, to be sure, was the final gift of the Bhutto legacy. Like the execution in 1979, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 was a national bereavement of immeasurable proportions. It was a deceased Benazir Bhutto who won the 2008 elections in absentia.

Charisma is something that becomes a kind of inheritance. That is how dynastic leadership has survived in countries with an unevolved political culture. The question, thus, is whether Bilawal does possess that Bhutto charisma. Or is the Zardari imprint more obvious? In that sense, the spectacle that was designed to launch the young leader in that overpriced public meeting in Karachi on October 18 was insufficiently imagined. At a time when Bilawal should have been seen to have stepped out of his father’s shadow, there was Asif Ali Zardari in person with his political orchestra.

There is another issue to ponder in this respect. The question I had raised about the PPP may also be valid about the Bhutto charisma. Is it relevant now? We know that Pakistan is a very young country and this demographic feature has rendered the young as the arbiter of Pakistan’s political destiny. Imran Khan has sought to exploit this territory and is seen to be doing well. Bilawal has the advantage of himself being young. If he is able to connect to the youth of today on his own, he may be able to resurrect his party and save it from becoming a Sindhi outfit.

One formidable hurdle for Bilawal is that Imran Khan and others have led a vociferous chorus against dynastic politics, though their major targets are the Sharifs of Lahore. The PPP has been compared with the Indian National Congress in the past. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India, touched by tragedy in the same measure as the Bhutttos, had to bite dust in this year’s general elections. There is similarity again in the fact that the Congress had to suffer because of its bad governance — in the face of a rise in religious fanaticism. In any case, the present plight of the Congress is a bad omen for the PPP.

An entire treatise could be written on the PPP ‘jalsa’ of October 18; in fact, it deserves to be a case study in Harvard as a mirror of a country’s politics. My sorrow is that an otherwise very good speech by Bilawal was wasted in a show that was so poorly organised. If political parties could boast of the amount invested in a rally, as movie producers do, then the PPP would claim to have set a record unlikely to be beaten in the near future. Alas, it was very deficient in production values.

When I say that Bilawal made a good speech, I refer to the implicit resolve to reclaim the liberal space that the party has lost in recent years. But the cast of characters lined up for the show had diffused the focus that must have rested entirely on Bilawal. There is a dilemma here that the PPP is seemingly unable to understand. If the project is meant to herald a new beginning, how do you handle your assets that are totally evocative of the old, the past? If the target is the youth, it has no living memory of what it was like even more than a decade ago. Their reference would be to the previous rule of the PPP identified with the person of Asif Zardari.

This is not to suggest that the PPP should understate its umbilical relationship with the Bhutto phenomenon. How it should be done is something else. The irony here is that every new leader who aspires to shine on Pakistan’s political horizon wants to become another Bhutto. Even Imran has not been able to camouflage his yearning to replicate Bhutto’s political performance. However, the manner in which ZAB’s and Benazir’s clips were used in television commercials for the PPP jalsa did not seem to be very effective.

bhuttoOne possible strategy for Bilawal would be to make a brutal assessment of the PPP’s recent performance in power and then share it with the leaders and workers of the party. That jiyala spirit is not yet extinct. In this exercise, governance may not seem as important as the ideological sense of direction of the party, forever a magnet for liberal and progressive opinion in the country. That crucial space has gradually been surrendered to religious extremists. Under Asif Ali Zardari, the party was unwilling to take on the radicals and the fanatics. The aftermath of Salman Taseer’s assassination is a good example of how gutless the party that bears the stamp of ‘shahadat’ can become.

Come to think of it, the renewal of the PPP may have a bearing on the very survival of this country. But it breaks your heart to feel that the PPP is an idea whose time has gone. Can Bilawal, with his twin heritage, defy this woeful impression?

This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue as part of the cover story.

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