December Issue 2016
The Battle for South Punjab
A respected lawyer from south Punjab, Speaker of the National Assembly during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s premiership, and a close confidant of his, Sahibzada Farooq Ali Khan would often share anecdotes with young lawyers. Among the many vignettes was one about Bhutto humiliating a particular PPP MNA in party meetings. Asked why he did this, Khan said Bhutto responded, “He is corrupt. Jo maal khai ga, woh gaali bhi khai ga.” (If he takes illegal money, he will have to take the abuse heaped on him).
Corruption is likely to be a major issue in the next elections. Institutions in Pakistan have become rotten to the core, and educated youth from the less privileged classes have increasingly begun to resent the loot engendered by this corruption which benefits the elite as it eats away their prospects. No political party is unblemished on this score either. Even the hitherto ‘clean’ PTI has tarnished its image in the race to grab seats in the assemblies.
With the PML-N in the dock fighting corruption charges and the PTI losing steam in the Punjab, the PPP could have presented itself as a viable alternate, but that will be an uphill task given the baggage it carries. Despite the clean chit from courts in many cases against the PPP high command, the masses have another verdict: guilty as charged. And the younger generation in massively urbanised Punjab no longer buys the ‘victimhood’ slogan. Whether Bilawal Bhutto can rein in his party’s outrageously corrupt practices, clean up its image and live by his grandfather’s philosophy, “Jo maal khai ga, woh gaali bhi khai ga” remains to be seen, but this really is the bottom line — what happens and is seen to be happening, will redefine the party’s relationship with the Punjab’s urban youth.
The emergence of a new elite in Punjab has changed its political and social dynamics. The growth of a vibrant middle class and deterioration in state-owned facilities has generated many investment opportunities. These upcoming entrepreneurs invest in lucrative education, healthcare and real estate businesses and need political clout to protect their interests. Apart from generating employment for their constituents, the urban elite have spare cash in hand to buy support for the elections. People-friendly programmes are not of interest to them — their profits depend on filling up the gaps in poor service delivery by the state. As such, they are a potent opposition to political forces which stand for reform. To counter this kind of politics, the PPP will need massive support from educated youth. It has to come up with a well-defined plan to fix the education, healthcare and housing sectors. So far, however, neither the PPP, nor any other political party has a clear vision on how to tackle these issues.
Historically, south Punjab has been a stronghold of the PPP, but a number of factors have contributed to its loss of support in the region, key among these the fact that there is a widespread feeling of deprivation in the area.
The present PML-N government has aggravated the situation. The budgetary allocations, job quotas, health and education spending, infrastructure development and postings at administrative positions in the region are widely viewed as discriminatory. And the feudal and business elite occupying major positions in all the political parties have failed to address these isssues. Bar associations in south Punjab have given numerous calls for strikes to express displeasure with the discrimination in judicial appointments. Syed Wajdan Rafay Bukhari, a gold medalist from Bahauddin Zakaryia University, contends that being from south Punjab itself is a disqualification for any position.
Multan’s Delhi gate is a symbol of the ancient transport hub between Delhi and Multan — the shortest trade link between India and Pakistan. The south Punjab region is set at the heart of the trade route between the Far East, China, India, Iran and Europe, and the envisaged China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is increasingly a focus of interest for the region. There are concerns because it is not clear how the benefits from the economic activity generated due to the CPEC will be routed, and whether the revenues accrued will go to Lahore and stay there, or revert to the region.
The residents of the area firmly believe that the region cannot develop without acquiring the status of a separate province. Certainly, with the economic prospects looking up in south Punjab, there is going to be a more intense debate on resource distribution. The PML-N is blamed for the long-term manipulation of the province’s resources to Lahore’s benefit, while the PTI remains silent on the issue. Any political party that takes a bold stand for the rights of south Punjab could sweep the region. Nationalist Seraiki groups have not been effective in raising the issue, but the way Bilawal deals with it may decide the future of the PPP in south Punjab.
Electoral politics in the Punjab are organised around clan and biradari loyalties. The Jats are a well-organised and economically sound group. They have been close allies of the Establishment, and lead the electable alliance of Pervez Musharaf’s Q-League. Earlier, many of their electables were willing to join the PTI, but changed their mind after realising they could garner PTI support without changing sides in the rural constituencies of the area. The Rajputs are allies of the PML-N and have now emerged as the biggest and strongest political and economic group. The Arains are being organised by a former governor who recently joined the PTI. For its part, the PPP may need to restructure its alliance with individual electables and Shia candidates.
Sajid Raza Thahim, Secretary, Political Advisory Committe of the Tehrik-e-Jafaria, is of the view that the PTI has failed to mobilise the masses in rural Punjab constituencies and is not an attractive prospect for electables. He suggests that the Establishment in Punjab may be more comfortable working with a young, articulate leader like Bilawal with the inherent nationalist traits of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, rather than dealing with the arrogant and unpredictable Imran Khan. Analyst Ayesha Siddiqa, however, maintains that the PPP is in bad shape and has little hope of a better performance in Punjab, unless the Establishment decides to provide it some space. She is of the opinion that the PPP does not enjoy support among the masses at present, and because the Punjab has been massively radicalised and depoliticised in the past few decades, it will be a tough job for Bilawal to bring back young voters to the party.
The downward slide in the the PPP began when Benazir Bhutto went into exile. It gave birth to a new breed of party leaders — commonly referred to as ‘paper leaders.’ They would pay handsome amounts to certain journalists and get their pictures leading processions that never happened, published in the press. These pictures would then be routed to the party leader in exile. One of the leading figures of the ‘paper leaders’ was able to hijack the entire party structure in Punjab — replacing genuine party workers with his own puppets. This was a group that did not enjoy a good reputation and had no connection with the masses. The structural rot touched its peak when some second-tier party leaders started asking for favours from prospective candidates in exchange for party tickets. Those who could not afford to pay, departed from the scene.
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto provided an opportunity to the non-political class to infiltrate party ranks. The main focus of the party has been to attract big names and Manzoor Watoo’s appointment as provincial president proved to be the beginning of the end. The PPP was not even in a position to field candidates in most constituencies in the local bodies elections.
Election dynamics have changed with the change in economic structures. Unlike the traditional one-on-one contests of the past, there are now more than two candidates in almost every constituency with a sizeable support base. But the PPP was unable even to field a third candidate to contest on its tickets. Given this abysmal situation, there is a clamour for reforms in the PPP in the Punjab.
So, would organisational restructuring be enough to bring the party back to life? Danyal Khan, a law and social sciences teacher at Bahauddin Zakaryia University, says, “The Pakistan People’s Party has gone through many ups and down in the Punjab. This province’s society is agrarian, based on a patriarchal orientation. After the colonial intrusion, it was left to the landholders and labourers to keep the land alive. Redressing the plight of the area’s agricultural labour could have great potential for the PPP. Land reforms and putting labour laws into action may help the PPP regain its popularity in the Punjab.”
Bilawal Bhutto has started structural reforms to reorganise the party. Mass parties always have a loose organisational structure. Yet parties like the PML-N, which cater to interest groups, can function as an effective political group without a valid organisational setup. On the other hand, the PTI represents a segment of the urban middle class which can be influenced by a mix of music, entertainment and anti-corruption slogans. The tragedy for the PPP is that a host of factors have damaged its organisational structure, and it has lost its earlier intimate interaction with the masses. It may be able to function better if it places political workers at the helm of affairs. But it faces a daunting task, as the major clans and biradari groups are quite comfortable with the PML-N and, to a lesser extent, with the PTI. Electables are not inclined to join the PPP as they do not view its prospects of protecting their interests favourably. Thus even with a vibrant organisational structure, the party may find it hard to make a dent in the status quo.
As matters stand, the PPP has no alternative except to reach out again to the downtrodden — factory workers, labourers and tillers of the land. It has to interact with those who cannot pay hefty university fees and large hospital bills. The party has to come forward with a welfare agenda to merit widespread support, thereby becoming attractive to the electable elite. However, even without much transformation in the Punjab, the party may be able to negotiate with the Establishment for a fair share, and be able to form a government in the centre in the upcoming elections.
The bottom line is that, once again, politics in the country are entirely person-centred. The fortunes of the PPP now largely depend on Bilawal Bhutto. His image is that of a courageous young man — but he has to move out of the shadow of his ‘aunties,’ ‘uncles’ and so on — just like his mother, Benazir Bhutto did. He has to stand his ground and implement his own agenda. He has to be on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressor. If Bilawal is able to change the narrative, bring in new ideas and atone for past mistakes, he may become one of the rising leaders of South Asia. But there is ‘many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.’ Any one of these ‘slips’ could turn him into another Imran Khan. Full of sound and fury…
Clearly, winning Punjab will be a tough battle.