Making change happen in Sindh

July 26,2016

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The writer is a senior executive producer at Geo News.

For staunch supporters of democracy, the last eight-year period in Sindh has proven to be the most vexing of cases. It has officially become the Pakistani equivalent of “but Hitler was a product of democracy, too” argument when debating the importance and desirability of democratic systems.

With development indicators – both social and infrastructural – well behind Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (and sometimes even Balochistan), both in terms of reality and perception, Sindh’s ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government has become synonymous with an absence of governance.

This has been particularly vexing given that Sindh has long had one of the most dynamic and active legislatures in Pakistan (and still does), boasting the most legislation, qualitatively and quantitatively, and the PPP some of the brightest minds in Pakistan. Yet in implementation and actual delivery, the picture has been bleak at best.

There are indeed times that this criticism has been unfair and exaggerated, but the unfairness is in many ways also the fault of the PPP itself – given its seeming indifference towards falling perceptions of its performance in Sindh. And perception is often stronger than reality.

First and foremost, the persistence with Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah has not turned out well for it. Qaim Ali Shah is a veteran PPP politician who also served in the cabinet of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and this is his third stint as Sindh CM (the first being in 1988). But the veteran from Khairpur has been unable to inspire confidence since the beginning of his second term in 2008. He couldn’t have inspired much confidence back in his first stint in 1988 either, considering he was replaced by the party in four months with Aftab Shahban Merani.

In many ways it was also telling that Benazir Bhutto didn’t give Qaim Ali Shah the nod when the PPP came back into power in 1993 either, choosing Abdullah Shah. Abdullah Shah is the father of the PPP’s dynamic and (relatively) young Murad Ali Shah, the man who has long been tipped to replace Qaim Ali Shah as chief minister. But the change never came, despite Qaim Ali Shah’s lacklustre performance – or at least Sindh’s lacklustre performance under his chief ministership.


Back in 2011, I was interviewing Zulfiqar Mirza – once one of the PPP’s most important leaders and, most importantly, PPP Chairman Asif Ali Zardari’s closest friend. Mirza had not gone completely rogue back then and was still a long way away from becoming one of Zardari’s leading antagonists (to use a light term), so his views carried more weight for an unbiased observer than they do today.

When we came to the topic of Sindh’s failing governance and Qaim Ali Shah being the face of that problem (keep in mind this was half a decade ago, and this perception has only continued, if not got stronger since), Mirza was sure that the chief minister would not be replaced any time soon. Back then, this was difficult to imagine. Surely the PPP would act on dipping perceptions three years in – and while its decisions at the federal level were hostage to a number of issues and political considerations, its Sindh setup was not faced with any such restraints. Reports had it that a switch was imminent.

But Mirza was right: not only did the change not come back then, Qaim was made CM again following the 2013 polls, against all odds and expectations, despite the PPP getting hammered in the 2013 polls nationally.

Mirza’s reasoning was clear. You see, in Sindh, the PPP wanted to accommodate multiple centres of power – for multiple nefarious non-governance related reasons, which are for another article – and this wouldn’t be possible with an empowered chief minister. These multiple power centres were Zardari’s sister, Faryal Talpur, MNA, long regarded as the actual chief minister of Sindh and Owais ‘Tappi’ Muzzaffar, Zardari’s ‘adopted’ brother among others (including home minister Mirza himself back then).

Qaim was perfect for this. He was a dove in the twilight of his career; he would listen; he was a loyalist; and to boot, he was an old face to providing credibility to the new PPP under Zardari, having served both BB and ZAB.

Basically, the very point of making him CM was to have a weak and pliable CM.

Things couldn’t have possibly turned out well with this plan. Qaim Ali Shah is not entirely to blame. How much can someone deliver if governing the province isn’t actually his job? The failure was the PPP’s model of running Sindh. But the sad reality is that he was the face of the debacle.

These eight years have been nothing short of disastrous for the party. Not all is bad in Sindh, to be fair; a lot of this has to with perception, but, as mentioned earlier, that, too, is the PPP’s fault.

Given its waning popularity nationally, the PPP thrust Bilawal Bhutto Zardari into the limelight a few months ago to become its political face leading it into the 2018 general elections. But, curiously enough, the decision was also for him to focus solely on politics and stay away from matters of governance in Sindh, which is where the problem actually lay.

The plan has failed, judging by by-polls, local bodies elections in Punjab and KP and most recently Kashmir. Clearly the PPP’s reading of Pakistan’s current political mood was dreadfully wrong: politics and governance cannot be kept mutually exclusive. Even a more visible Bilawal cannot be expected to compensate for the PPP’s governance issues in Sindh.

After the PPP’s miserable showing in the Kashmir’s election results despite Bilawal’s spirited and often impressive effort leading the campaign, the decision has come to bring change in Sindh – including in the chief minister’s office.

The move is positive. Yet, no matter how dynamic and motivated the new man, it will make little difference if the new CM is thrust into the same problematic situation: having to defer to multiple centres of power and remaining powerless.

The equation is simple: Effective governance requires an effective government. Sindh needs an empowered CM and a cabinet with the right people at the right posts (instead of people like home minister Sohail Sial, who is just one case in point of laughable nepotism at critical positions in Sindh). The most important thing Bilawal can do is to insulate the new CM from his own family and friends.

There are approximately 20 months to the 2018 elections, and a change of guard will give a temporary push; for Bilawal to be seen as actual change, he needs actual change to show.

Deliver to the people or die politically at their hands: at the end of the day this is an inescapable ultimatum of democracy. Eight years on, the PPP is finally being forced to change despite being firmly in power in Sindh, with few, if any, challengers in sight (for now).

It is ironic on many levels, but the case of Sindh’s failures is one that every supporter of democracy should cite, not shy away from.



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