It had never been too easy for the PPP to launch or re-launch itself. Just go back to the back copies of leading newspapers of Pakistan and you will be shocked by the torrent of venom with which the party was welcomed at its launch in 1967. And every time Benazir Bhutto tried to re-launch the party, it was turned into a Sisyphean effort by the forces inimical to democracy. And Asif Ali Zardari sat there in the President House for five years, totally inactivated by judicial activism, with the Swiss cases hanging over his head like the sword of Damocles.
Both the father and the daughter can be faulted on many counts. But even the bitterest opponents of the two acknowledge without any reservations their invaluable contributions for democracy. ZA Bhutto gave this nation its first-ever near-unanimously passed democratic Constitution. Benazir Bhutto sacrificed her life for democracy.
Benazir is blamed for the infamous NRO but this ordinance was promulgated by a military dictator, essentially to ensure his own continuity and not to hand over his presidential powers to an elected prime minister. That the late Benazir successfully used the very same NRO to break open a window for the democratic process to resume is a classic example of what is known as turning an argument on its head. Also, had it not been for the NRO, the Charter of Democracy and the strategy of reconciliation, the PML-Q would have swept the 2008 polls after having returned Pervez Musharraf to presidency in uniform for another five years. No transfer of power would have occurred from an elected government to the next one after the 2013 polls — a long-aspired first in Pakistan’s history. And, of course, there would not have been any PTI/PAT dharnas or their mammoth public meetings. This is not to minimise the credit due to Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri for what the two have achieved so far in the political arena, but only to clarify some of the astute but misrepresented (by vested interests) moves of the PPP leadership for which it continues to be maligned by some old and some new aspirants to power.
And there is more to the PPP being wiped from Punjab than the alleged reasons of corruption and misgovernance. Punjab was known as the bastion of the PPP when ZAB was in power. But after ZAB’s ouster, forces hostile to the PPP never allowed the party to retake Punjab. The first time when a ‘security risk’-labelled BB came to power at the centre, Punjab went to a connected Nawaz Sharif. Next time it went to the PPP’s coalition partners, the Chatta faction of the PML, enjoying almost the same connections. And the third time again, it went back to Nawaz. That is the reason why during the last 35 years, a left-of-centre party’s bastion has completely turned into an ideologically barren entity, where a handful of conservative moneybags have been ruling the roost.
The circumstances under which Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has been launched by his party are totally different from those that ZAB and BB had faced. Democracy appears to be taking root in the country with the judiciary relatively more independent and the media relatively freer, with parts of the broadcast media acquiring enough influence to be able to set its own political agenda. The establishment, on the other hand, also seems to have learnt its lessons. A more level political field is available now in which Bilawal will be pitted against leaders as super-rich as Nawaz and as media-savvy a charismatic personality as Imran.
Bilawal’s first speech was impressive for its content, presentation and delivery. It had a liberal-left flavour. But he would need more than speaking skills to eliminate corruption and misgovernance from Sindh, which has been groaning under the PPP’s sleaze-laden and writ-less rule for the last six years. So, to begin with, his leadership qualities would be tested against his performance in Sindh compared with Imran’s in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Nawaz’s in Punjab. He can start with land reforms and taxing incomes from agriculture. One recalls here for the benefit of Bilawal, that the first-ever land reforms in this country were introduced by ZAB, but he was ousted before he could introduce the second phase, and that the 1973 Constitution empowers provinces to tax agriculture incomes.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 22nd, 2014.