January Issue 2008
The Zardari Factor
In the mournful environs of the Bhuttos’ ancestral graveyard in Garhi Khuda Bux sits an aging fakir who, oblivious to the marching crowds around him, every five minutes shouts ‘Jiye Bhutto’ at the top of his voice and then breaks down in loud sobs. The slogan, once a pet refrain of PPP workers and leaders alike in public meetings, now sounds like misfortune’s ultimate gauntlet to the party leadership.
Having lost Benazir Bhutto to an assassin’s bullet, they now have to ensure that ‘Jiye Bhutto’ remains a rallying cry for the party’s broken cadres.
So far they have not done badly. Or so it seems. In the torturous aftermath of Benazir Bhutto’s tragic killing, when each one of them was drowned in grief, the central leadership of the party has managed the transition. New captain(s) Asif Ali Zardari and the renamed Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Ms Bhutto’s husband and son, respectively, might not be the ideal co-chairpersons to lead Pakistan’s biggest political force, but they are the only ones on whom a consensus of sorts has been arrived at.
Party insiders, and critics of the decision to appoint the duo, admit that Ms Bhutto’s political will to leave the reins of the party to her husband does exist and that as much as they had deep reservations about the arrangements, they realise that there was no other alternative.
“I do not think Asif Ali Zardari or Bilawal Bhutto Zardari can ever be the kind of leader Mohtarama was. But I also know that no one can be. And then why fret about it when she in her lifetime, had sanctioned it in writing. I have to respect the will because I have seen it and because these were her last orders,” says a member of the PPP’s central executive committee (CEC).
Others who are more vocal in their bitterness about the party’s top slot going to Asif Ali Zardari, insist that Ms Bhutto never mentioned her husband as her heir in any significant conversation about the party’s future. They suspect that Mr Zardari might have forced Ms Bhutto to pen down the will, and she, in her weak moments as a faithful wife, might have obliged.
“She never wanted him to deal with the party directly; and when he came out of jail and tried to use his brief stint in Lahore to call the shots to party leaders, she immediately told him not to bother,” says another member of the central executive committee. But whether out of compulsion or out of choice, Ms Bhutto did allow Mr Zardari considerable space in party affairs. In the critical time of the award of party tickets, there are at least 16 cases where Mr Zardari’s opinion defined the choice even at the cost of the goodwill of party loyalists. Ms Farahnaz Ispahani, wife of Hussain Haqqani, Bhutto tormentor- turned-trusted ally, got the ticket, against the wishes of Naheed Khan, Ms Bhutto’s faithful friend, whose fretful return of her ticket did not change her leader’s decision.
At the heart of these objections to the new arrangement to govern the PPP sits a gnawing distrust of Asif Zardari by the party’s diehard supporters. Mr Zardari’s personal conduct has bred a deep disenchantment against him in a party that has never seen its future beyond Benazir Bhutto.
“He is seen as vengeful and politically naÃ¯ve. He does not know the party workers except a handful of his own favourites and does not command the automatic respect that Ms Bhutto enjoyed effortlessly,” says a local leader in Naudero, the ancestral village of Ms Bhutto.
These mixed fears of the loss of position, privilege, and access to the party high command is the reason why many party eyes are still looking towards Fatima Bhutto, the estranged niece of Benazir Bhutto and daughter of her slain brother Mir Murtaza Bhutto.
A spitting image of Benazir in her younger days, Fatima Bhutto is the eldest of the new Bhutto generation. She and her brother, Zulfikar Bhutto, are seen by many as the true heirs of the Bhutto legacy since they are the offsprings of a male Bhutto. Such chatter is music to the ears of Ghinwa Bhutto, their mother, who for years has delivered damning indictments of Benazir Bhutto for “stealing the Bhutto throne and handing it over to the Zardaris.”
While grief-stricken and more respectful to Benazir Bhutto after her death than she ever was in her life, Ghinwa Bhutto can barely hide her contempt for the Zardari-Bilawal combine ruling the roost.
“We cannot allow the Bhutto stamp to be hijacked by anyone. We would consult the whole Bhutto family. The children are in touch. We would bring in elders like Mumtaz Bhutto and we would bring the party back to the genuine heirs. It is only a matter of time,” she says sitting in Al-Murtaza, the sprawling family home in Larkana.
But these are vain hopes. The Bhutto stamp, a reference to the political vote-bank of the PPP, is not going to shift towards Ghinwa Bhutto’s party just because Fatima Bhutto is penning kinder words about her slain aunt in newspapers — a space that she consistently used to deny her image as a true leader of the people of Pakistan.
Some of Ms Bhutto’s closest friends say that there was a time when she wanted to reach out to Fatima Bhutto in spite of her mother, but that was three years ago.
“She had practically given up on the idea of engaging the family of her brother and never mentioned them in any significant discussion about the party’s future. At any rate, Ghinwa Bhutto’s politics is very dicey and, even now, she is openly clamouring for further postponement of the elections — the very opposite of what BB sahiba wanted. The party would be pulled apart if someone tried to bring Ghinwa’s family into the equation,” says a close confidante of the late Benazir Bhutto.
These dangers to the party are real. The Zardaris are even more suspicious of Mir Murtaza’s party than PPP leaders. Asif Ali Zardari had a running feud with Mir Murtaza, whose supporters openly accuse Mr Zardari of planning his murder. Party sources confirm that Mr Zardari had issued special instructions at Bhutto House, Ms Bhutto’s abode in Larkana, that Mir Murtaza’s backers should be particularly searched for weapons as they arrived in droves to participate in condolence meetings. At one point Mr Zardari left the room where pro-Murtaza family members were sitting on the hunch that perhaps some of them had guns on them. It is inconceivable that such strained ties among the elders — Ghinwa and Asif, who both are non-Bhuttos — shall improve enough to allow a smooth third-generation transfer of leadership of the party. The Asif-Bilawal combine is more or less a permanent arrangement and unlikely to change bloodlessly in the near future.
And so far the PPP has managed to stay together, and besides the perpetual grumblings surrounding everything that Asif Ali Zardari does, or does not do, there are no signs of mutinous thoughts gaining ground within the party.
This is primarily on account of the party’s decision to contest the elections. In Karachi, where much of the party leadership is now based, drawing rooms are filled with chat about what these elections mean for the party. The consensus view is that if it was not for the prospect of elections, the party would have gone to the dogs of disintegration by now.
“Heartless though it may seem, it is a fact that the party’s prospects of securing a comprehensive victory in the coming elections are looking bright only after the tragedy of our leader’s assassination. The aftermath of this incident has decimated the opposition and made our voters and workers aggressive and combative. We are heartbroken personally, but politically we have never felt more obliged to win as now. We must honour Ms Bhutto through a resounding victory,” says a provincial ticket-holder from Sindh.
This motivation is moving, but is fraught with the danger of turning into frustration and fury in case the anticipated victory is not obtained or is denied. In Clifton, a small gathering of Peoples Party leaders broached the subject for hours and reached the conclusion that the biggest challenge for the party would be to take a stand on agitation in case the elections are rigged.
“Right now the new party leadership is only following the script that BB had created in her life: the manifesto, party tickets, the campaign profile and even some rough priorities for the slots of prime minister and chief ministers have all been marked. The new leadership will face its toughest moment if circumstances demand a clear-cut response to the denial of our legitimate victory at the polls. The more hardline groups would clamour for a mass movement while others would want a less problematic course of action. That would test the mettle of the party leadership,” says a member of the central executive committee.
When Asif Ali Zardari was asked in an interview at Bhutto House what sort of elections he anticipated, he spoke of rigging in definitive terms and sounded a warning note to the government in the following words: “If the government has any brains, it would listen to us [on elections].” Privately, sources close to Mr Zardari say that he would not think twice before calling for agitation in case the PPP does not win.
But in Islamabad, that citadel of intrigue, the mood is half-jubilant over the difficulties that the PPP is confronted with. Analyses abound of how easy it is to now manage the PPP and possibly also break it up into pieces to end its dominance in national politics. The post-Benazir Bhutto possibilities are the most written about subject on which intelligence war-gaming has already started.
However, the more thoughtful intriguers among the lot are aware of at least one worry. Between now and the time when PPP’s internal problems might spill over, lies the crucial phase of elections. The PPP is revved up and cadres in Sindh particularly are mad with rage. If they are shortchanged in the elections, they can and will create havoc. But to allow them to come to power is an option not acceptable to the assorted leaders of PML-Q and even President General (retd.) Pervez Musharraf. They trust Zardari less than they trusted Benazir. Therein lies the fear that the real phase of instability might just be beginning.
The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.