The PPP and its Future
Before re-inventing the party, Asif Ali Zardari must re-invent himself.
Does the PPP have what it takes to regain the status of a national party?
Asif Zardari’s exit from the President’s House had all the trappings of “Paradise Lost.” For five years he had been living there secure as if in a cocoon. Now he is out under the open sky. His first trip, after leaving office, was to Lahore where he was greeted by party faithful with chants of “Welcome, Welcome,” and Aitzaz Ahsan stammering two verses from the Quran. Since then he has not been heard of. Nor, even, Bilawal.
Apparently they are busy picking up the pieces while the party, cochaired by the father and son, lies flat on its face, traumatized by its rout in the last election, after ruling the country’s political roost for more than four decades. There was a time when the party enjoyed mass support in all the four provinces with the status of a truly federal party. Benazir Bhutto was appropriately called the chain that lassoed the federating units. Today, it has been reduced to the level of a purely regional party, confined to rural Sindh; the few seats it still retains in the Punjab do not alter the picture.
The situation raises the question that whether the last PPP stint in power was its swan song? Or can the Phoenix rise again? Does the party have what it takes to resume the status of a national party? Party loyalists optimistically recall the PPP’s performance in 1997. That was even a worse debacle than now as it won only 16 National Assembly seats. In contrast, the party won 33 NA seats in 2013. They also insist that the PPP’s ‘national’ image remains intact and will enable it to bounce back.
But times have changed. The Bhutto father and daughter were charismatic leaders. Z.A. Bhutto was a powerhouse of energy. Berkeley had formed his
and groomed him into a leader of men. In addition, he collected a galaxy of dedicated people around him – people with proven talent and hands that were squeaky clean, such as J.A. Rahim, Yusuf Buch, Hafeez Pirzada, Dr. Mubashir Hasan, Sheikh Rashid, et al.
Benazir was to ZAB what Indira Gandhi was to Nehru. At a young age she had met people like Henry Kissinger and Indira Gandhi in her father’s company. Oratory and theatrics she inherited from her father. Harvard and Oxford added further sheen. And to supplement it all was her own physical charm. Just as ZAB could mesmerize a mammoth crowd, so could BB hold a multitude in thrall. That was the “weapon” that helped the party’s rebound after the 1997 rout.
Circumstances also favored the PPP. Both in 1970 and 1988 its thumping victories were due as much to popular distaste for prolonged military rule as to the attraction of the party’s egalitarian programs.
The decline began with Mr. Zardari’s debut in government. Tancu Ciller and Margaret Thatcher did not allow their spouses to interfere in governance, nor did they give them any office. The same applies to Angela Merkel of Germany and Dilma Rousseff of Brazil today. In contrast, BB appointed Mr. Zardari as a cabinet minister, while also distancing herself from her father’s loyal supporters.
Corruption burgeoned to such proportions that the New York Times published a special report titled “House of Graft.” Mr. Zardari received the label of “Mr. 10 percent” which became an instant international hit and still emblazons his image like a tattoo.
Since he took charge of the party, the decline became steeper as tested stalwarts were replaced by cronies and personal loyalty substituted party loyalty. In sharp contrast to ZAB, Zardari’s cabinet boasted such people as Yusuf Raza Gilani and Raja Pervez Ashraf whose only excellence was sycophancy.
Survival being foremost for Zardari, he focused all his energies on securing his flanks by keeping all political parties in good humor, instead of sparing some moments for a viable public agenda. In the May elections,