The PPP and its Future Before re-inventing the party, Asif Ali Zardari must re-invent himself.
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, co-chaired 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 'wifaq ki zanjeer' 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 weltanschauung 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, therefore, instead of articulating any new program, the party fell back on old cliches like projecting the PPP as a party of 'martyrs' - a gimmick that failed.
This is the PPP's moment of truth. The Tehrik-e-Insaf has emerged as a third political force to compete for the trophy of a "federal" party. At the same time, after remaining in power for a full term, the PPP can no longer draw upon mass sympathy as it did in the past. It is not a victim of oppression anymore. Nor can it play the anti-military rule card, because the country seems well set on the course of democracy.
The PPP's electoral position has eroded remarkably since it first emerged on the political scene in 1970. From 39 percent in 1970 and 1988, the party's vote share plunged to 15 percent in 2013, lower even than that of the PTI, which polled 18 percent of the vote nationally.
At its birth, the PPP had swept the people off their feet by being a voice for the underprivileged. That magic has been exorcised by Mr. Zardari. ZAB interacted with the rank and file; Mr. Zardari sidelined them and introduced a courtier culture that contradicted the party's populist ethos. As one writer summed it up, "Once a party of change, the PPP was unable to define what it stood for any more. Efforts to project the party's 'liberal' outlook on social issues were not matched by policy actions to substantiate such claims."
Hereditary or dynastic politics is also a major factor in the PPP's plummeting fortunes. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari's appeal, based only on legacy came unstuck during the elections, only because, he could not "connect" with the audience. After two generations, only a surname is not enough to claim succession to the Bhutto legacy. One must 'earn' a position of authority in the party through actual contribution, which Bilawal has yet to make.
People expect the party to offer answers to their current problems, beyond "roti, kapra, makan." But under Mr. Zardari it has failed to offer any solutions.
Yet, the party can be resurrected, though it will need a virtual overhaul of policy and practice. As a first step, Zardari must reinvent himself. His foremost task must be to shed the labels of "Mr. 10 percent" and "Yaron ka yar" (cronyism). If he can do that, besides giving the slogan "corruption hatao" like Indira Gandhi's "gharibi hatao", and manages to collect a bunch of talented people like ZAB did, the party may rise again.