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Bilawal needs to reinvent Bhutto

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Reinventing a name bigger than the party itself is a precarious task, but one that is needed for the PPP to have any relevance in future politics

The death anniversary of PPP Founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was commemorated by the party leaders yesterday with usual rhetoric and populist slogans that ceased being popular decades ago. ‘Zinda hai Bhutto zinda hai,’ once an invigorating rallying cry for the nation being suffocated under military regimes, has now become its own spoof.

The PPP has lived long enough for these chants long affiliated with not only the party but democracy itself, to metamorphose into jibes hurled by the party detractors. And the biggest tragedy is that this materialised within a couple of years of Benazir Bhutto’s death — such was the wretched level of governance that Pakistan had to endure for the five years (2008-2013) of the PPP.

When Benazir was alive, she successfully merged the larger-than-life character of her father with hers, maintaining the electoral value of brand Bhutto even when the Sharifs had detached themselves from Zia’s lap and well and truly arrived at the scene. But following BB’s murder, the PPP lacked that magnanimous, charismatic figure that commanded authority all the while aligning themselves with the party’s grassroots.

Even though Bilawal has the potential, the electoral challenges he and his party have in store are more colossal than what his mother or grandfather had to overcome — at least post 1971.

For starters, neither Benazir nor Zulfikar inherited any backlog of disastrous party policies or electoral failures. In fact, both of them, for the major chunk of their political careers were considered synonymous with democracy itself. Even with the emergence of the PML-N in the 90s, the PPP always maintained its aura of ‘true democrats’ against the peddled ‘military offspring.’

Bilawal, however, has to contend with a PML-N stronger than ever in the country, especially in Punjab and the rise of PTI that has supplanted the PPP as the second biggest party in the country right now. That means that verbal onslaught against the military or self-identifying as champions of democracy is no longer sufficient if PPP is to survive, let alone have any aspirations of ruling the centre in the next two decades.

Of course, the PPP without Bhutto slogans would lose whatever support it has in rural Sindh and hence can’t really do away with it. But rest assured, Punjab isn’t buying brand Bhutto’s merchandise anytime soon. Unless the brand is reinvented.

Whatever buyers Bhutto’s simplistic version of socialism had, were further alienated following Zia’s Islamisation of Pakistan. Notwithstanding Bhutto’s own legislation to excommunicate Ahmadis, PPP’s claims of being a secular party were shattered after its reaction to the murder of Salmaan Taseer in 2011. Nawaz Sharif has since taken up the gauntlet, presenting a secular and liberal vision for Pakistan in words and some progressive legislations. And with the PPP no longer equated with democracy, it has run out of any ideologies it could claim to represent.

Maybe then the PPP needs to follow PML-N and PTI and cease being an ideological party at all. With Pakistani politics not mature enough to support parties demarcated along ideological lines, the only options any aspirants have are populism and performance. The PTI and PML-N, currently have the dibs on the former and latter respectively.

This leaves PPP with the need to merge the two and reform its populism that has banked on Bhutto’s name for decades. If Bhutto can’t be sold as democracy incarnate, then he has to evolve into something more relevant.

For example, the harbinger of Muslim unity who got the Muslim states together in the 70s, four decades before the current model of the Saudi-led Islamic military alliance. This would give him Pan-Islamic appeal as a kind of leader the Muslim world needs right now amidst the many continued predicaments.

To avoid being categorised as mullah appeasers, or Islamists, and to reclaim the liberal vote bank that it is increasingly losing to PML-N (via PTI), Bhutto could be modelled as the ideal Muslim statesman who integrated the Islamic world while upholding the religious minorities as pivotal for the progress of any Muslim state.

Similarly, Bhutto’s role as the ‘saviour of Pakistan’, the founding father of the post-1971 Pakistan, could be highlighted even more. The martyrdom for democracy should be reconsidered for a more direct claim of sacrifice for the masses.

But, of course, this populism needs to be coupled with performance as well. To consolidate rural Sindh, the PPP needs to reconnect with the grassroots and win the party workers again, especially in Punjab. This is where Bilawal needs to invest most of his energy over the next six years, to have a better shot at the elections after next, with any realistic chance at forming the federal government over a decade away.

Revamping a name bigger than the party itself is a precarious task, but one that is needed for the party to have any relevance in future politics. Bilawal needs to reinvent it, for Bhutto to remain alive.

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