April Issue 2009
At the Crossroads
Asif Ali Zardari is holding charge of the PPP as a regent, till its chairperson, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is able to take the party’s reins on the completion of his studies. One of the most critical questions which will have a serious bearing on Pakistan’s future is: What will be the condition of the PPP when the interim period comes to an end?
The question has assumed added importance in view of the serious reverse the PPP has suffered by its stubbornly unwise policy on the judges’ restoration and its utterly indefensible attempts to form government in the Punjab in a coalition with the PML-Q. The federal government’s apparently vindictive and churlish reaction to Nawaz Sharif’s victory parade of March 15-16 is making the PPP’s position more and more difficult.
Some months ago, Nawaz Sharif promised to stitch his lips for five years if the judges were restored. At the time of the Long March he proclaimed he had no demands other than the restoration of the judges. On March 18, he called for the restoration of the Shahbaz Sharif government in the Punjab and the reversal of the court verdict holding the Sharif brothers ineligible for election. So far, he has been disavowing any intention to rock the federal government’s boat or to call for fresh general elections. But if the present confrontation in the Punjab continues, Nawaz Sharif may call for fresh elections in the Punjab, if not in the whole country.
If elections are held in the Punjab today, or over the next few months, the PPP will find it difficult to avoid severe reverses. And if the central government continues to behave as it has in the past year, time is unlikely to be on the PPP’s side.
Hopes that the PPP leadership would act with a greater sense of responsibility after March 16 have not come true. It has again thrown down the gauntlet to the PML-N. Its efforts to form a government in the Punjab with the help of the PML-Q are dangerous, to the point of being suicidal. There is little chance that this clumsy manoeuvre will succeed. Even if it does, the Punjab will be thrown in turmoil. The PPP will lose the moral argument to the PML-N and the fact that the Punjab administration will be divided (it is already divided) will breed anarchic trends.
Besides harming its own prospects, the PPP’s decline in the Punjab will also grievously undermine Pakistan’s future as a democratic federation. Without a strong presence in the Punjab, the PPP’s status as a national party will be severely compromised. It will be extremely difficult for the party to form its government at the centre and even if it succeeds in doing so, it would not be a stable arrangement. The country will suffer for want of a national party that could promote inter-provincial harmony. Continuance of the mutually destructive confrontation between the major political forces will prevent the state from contemplating removal of the people’s grievances or promotion of the public good. The government will be at the sufferance of the permanent establishment.
The PPP is in dire need of taking stock of the factors that have contributed to its present predicament. The setbacks suffered by the party over the past year or so can easily be understood.
The factors that helped the PPP perform as well as it did in the February 18 general elections are known. Benazir Bhutto’s assassination infused a new life in the party. The people’s hearts were touched by the saga of the Bhutto family’s sacrifices and tribulations. The whole country was in the grip of a strong anti-Musharraf, anti-dictatorship wave. Reports of US support for the Benazir-Musharraf understanding — though it caused dismay in the democratic camp — seemed to underwrite the party’s return to power, thus attracting that sizeable group of political fortune-seekers who always favour parties that appear to be winning.
However, ever since coming into power, the PPP has been losing support, except for rural areas in Sindh and southern Punjab. During the phase of government formation, the party presented the appearance of a one-man show and that none too amusing either. The Bhurban accord added to its credit but ill-concealed attempts to wriggle out of it brought the party greater discredit than its gains. Likewise, formation of the coalition with the PML-N was welcomed across the country but the PPP received flak for letting the arrangement break down. The party’s stock went down in the eyes of the ordinary citizens because of its failure to address their economic woes, for keeping the parliament idle, for gifting away key positions in government and administration to hangers-on, for not caring about stories of corruption in high places, and for allowing the ministers and party satraps to display vulgar affluence. Whether driven by oversized ambition, or fear/insecurity, Zardari seems determined to bring his stint in power to an Orwellian conclusion.
This increase in the PPP leadership’s capacity to alienate the civil society, lawyers, liberals, trade unions and the middle class should be seen in the context of the party’s fluctuating fortunes, in political terms, over the past 40 years.
The PPP rose to popularity during 1967-70, by garnering anti-Ayub sentiment. The Vietnam war had radicalised the country’s youth and the PPP benefited from its fallout by gaining strongholds in the middle class; it won the support of sizeable sections — if not a majority — of lawyers, teachers, journalists and students. Inspired by the slogans of ‘Roti, Kapra aur Makan’ and ‘land to the tiller,’ the workers and peasants rallied round the PPP. A large number of progressive activists who were dissatisfied with their parties’ (particularly NAP’s) lack of interest in democratic movements brought a conscious cadre into the PPP and the party had a large brigade of urchins — absolutely marvelous heralds of change.
The party was particularly strong in the urban areas and industrial centres. Its commitment to the cause of the Kashmiri people and confrontation with India made it the Punjab’s favourite party. Its leadership in the province was strong at the top, right upto the tertiary level. All these things combined enabled the PPP to emerge as the majority party in West Pakistan.
Within a couple of years of coming into power, the PPP started distancing itself from the elements that had helped it gain power. The working class and the peasantry were the first to be alienated. Then the middle-class professionals were disillusioned. Allies in less populous provinces felt betrayed. The urchins disappeared from the streets. By the time the 1977 elections were called, the party had lost most of its old supporters and the new entrants it received were largely opportunists. In these elections, the party relied more on the administration and the landed aristocracy (that it had beaten and humiliated in 1970) than on party cadres. It paid a heavy price. The country went down with it.
The destruction of the PPP was General Zia-ul-Haq’s foremost priority. He manipulated the judicial murder of Zulfikar Bhutto, co-opted the weaklings in the PPP and flogged the janissaries, detained the Bhutto ladies, abolished the role of political parties in elections, encouraged local bodies to undermine national-level politics, and admitted political parties hostile to the PPP into government so as to help them create their pockets of support.
The PPP survived all this in the ’88 elections. What it could not overcome was its failure to adjust to socio-economic changes over the preceding decade, specially in the Punjab. It offered no accommodation to the rising middle-class peasants in the farm belt (Multan, Vehari, Sahiwal and Okara) or the artisan/mechanic-turned-entrepreneur in the districts of Faisalabad, Gujranwala and Sialkot (where the party had scored stunning success in 1970). The lightweight successors to the PPP’s 1970 heavyweights in Lahore could not hold the city for the party. As a result, the party began losing its hold on the Punjab.
From 1990 to date, the PPP has survived as a pale shadow of its former self. It abandoned its egalitarian ideals, neglected the party cadres and failed to redesign its vision. If it survived and came into power again in 1993, this was due to intra-government wrangling and the personal/family following of party candidates more than anything else.
Now the PPP is at a crossroads. Its assets have dwindled and its liabilities have multiplied. The Bhutto charisma worked in 1988, it didn’t in 1990. Then, Benazir Bhutto had to create her own charisma. She did her final service to the party in February 2008. Now, Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari have to rely on their own political capital. Unless they can augment it considerably, they will be at a disadvantage and the PPP’s future will be uncertain.
It could be argued, and not without some justification, that the PPP’s rival parties are no better. Maybe they are worse. But their shortcomings will only help the PPP when they (the rival parties) are in power and they, too, fail the people. Not before that.
The pass the PPP has brought itself to should cause anxiety to all democratic-minded people. Political parties provide the most vital sinews to a democratic state. No state remains unscathed if its political parties fall on bad days. The PPP is still a great party with the potential to become stronger. Regardless of its past sins, it is perhaps the best option for federalists, its goodwill towards women and minorities is natural and it has had the courage to stand up against militants. Yet the party’s rehabilitation will take a lot of doing. Some of the priorities are:
Zardari should choose between the party office and the presidency. If he wishes to guide the party, he should quit the presidency.
If Zardari wishes to continue as president, he should become a non-partisan constitutional head of state and leave the running of the government to the cabinet. By trying to function as an absolute ruler, he has undermined the party and made the presidency controversial. Pakistan must bury the tradition that its head of state is abused in the streets.
The parliament should remain permanently in session, with recesses for short periods and these should be after long intervals.
A new accountability commission, independent of the government, should be set up. Any minister against whom a prima facie case of corruption is made out, should be suspended and tried and sacked if found guilty.
The PPP should sit in opposition in the Punjab Assembly if the PML-N rejects reviving a coalition with it.
The party must evolve a new vision for Pakistan.
The party should compete with political rivals on the strength of its socio-economic programme.
The PPP should promote the idea that wise, honest, efficient and patriotic persons can be found outside the corridors of power, which is now jam-packed with self-seekers.
The PPP should strive to end the tradition that parties in power must decimate the opposition groups.
Mr. I.A. Rehman is a writer and activist living in Pakistan. He is the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Secretariat.