Bilawal must have waited for this moment for almost a decade. He might have felt frustrated by persistent infantalisation at the hands of his father and phupho, even when jiyalas were ready to follow him as their new leader and the nation was willing to take him seriously. There was gossip of differences between the father and the son, shared by some PPP leaders with a hint of euphoria. There were even stories of Bilawal leaving the country in disgust after making a speech that was disapproved of by the patriarch.
Finally, Bilawal has been launched, to borrow the terminology of our jihadi organisations. Pumped up with the adrenaline that youth bestows upon every male member of the human species, he may be feeling like Hercules on his first labour. In this labour, the Greek demi-god kills the ferocious Nemean lion that had devoured many aspiring heroes because they did not know that the lion’s golden skin was impenetrable.
Everyone, except those who had their hands in the till or their backsides in important chairs, wanted him to undertake Hercules’ fifth labour first. On this labour, Hercules successfully cleansed the filthy stables of King Augeas who had housed a large herd of cattle stables that had not been cleaned for years. The king, in Bilawal’s case, was his own father and the stable was his own party.
There were expectations of a shift in the leadership and the way the PPP had conducted politics under Asif Ali Zardari. There were hopes of a new PPP emerging under the youthful leadership of a new generation of Bhuttos. Such a shift was important not only to revive a new spirit among the PPP followers but also to deal with the difficulties the party faced due to Zardari’s image problem.
The best hopes for the PPP emerged during Zardari’s 18-month long self-imposed exile starting after his landmark striking-brick-with-brick speech delivered in June 2015. But Zardari returned in November 2016 and took full control of the party. From striking brick with brick, he turned the party into an indentured labourer working diligently at the brick kiln.
For almost two years, the PPP fully supported the new jurisprudence of accountability. It clapped and sang when NAB went after the Sharif family. Zardari claimed a major role in pulling down the PML-N’s Balochistan government and the subsequent Sanjrani formula. The PPP claimed a great victory in denying itself the office of the chairman of the Senate. It refused to join hands with the opposition in elections for the prime minister.
Obviously, the PPP under Zardari wanted something in return – most probably trouble-free elections in Sindh and freedom from NAB. Though the PPP complained of interference in elections, it was able to win the number of seats it expected in the province.
The NAB cases, however, have kept moving and reached at a dangerous level. Investigations carried out by independent journalists hint at serious trouble for Zardari, some of the family members and many associates.
Historically, NAB cases have served as the Sword of Damocles rather than the guillotine. NAB has been a great tool of behaviour-change communication. In Zardari’s case, the NAB process continued even when the PPP’s behaviour had become perfect. The new precedent set in cases against Nawaz Sharif–the demand to show the whole trail of assets–means that old form of legal defence can’t be very helpful.
Suddenly Abbu and Phupho have found that Bilawal has grown up to lead one of the toughest battles that the PPP has ever waged. Unfortunately, neither Bilawal nor the PPP is ready for this conflict – even though NAB is going through a serious crisis of credibility in the aftermath of the suicide of Brigadier (r) Asad Munir and the scathing remarks made by the higher judiciary in some cases.
However, NAB’s troubles may not be enough to save Zardari or to convince people that cases against Zardari and his associates are a pack of lies. The Bahria Town verdict throws up many questions that the PPP must answer. How a property tycoon agreed to pay 460 billion for a piece of land that was given away almost for free by the Sindh government? How this land, set aside for a housing project meant for the poor, was allotted for an elite housing society?
All three political parties have a problem with crony capitalism and depend on proceeds from crony sectors directly or indirectly. With the PPP, this problem is most acute due to Zardari’s direct and passionate involvement in the crony sectors.
The PPP has cut its umbilical cord with its core constituency – the working classes. The PPP may have some understanding of its electorate in terms of clientelist politics, but it has completely lost the pulse of the people. It does not know who it represents. By default it represents a small section of Sindhi rural and business elite. The PML-N and the PTI, on the other hand, are well aware of their constituency and the interests of the social groups they represent.
Only a fool can believe that the current PPP represents the poor or the poor have any romance left for the party. The PPP is in no position to stir a lot of trouble without other major parties joining hands – an unlikely scenario. It has chosen to embarrass the government internationally on the lack of action against proscribed organisations.
Action against proscribed organisations can be a good talking point but it cannot be used as a national battle cry around which people could be mobilised. The only militant organisations left are the ones that had been active in Kashmir and enjoy a limited footprint in Pakistan. And even these organisations have not been very active in Indian-occupied Kashmir for years.
The PPP is again striking brick with brick at a time when it is far weaker than it was in 2015. Bilawal hasn’t yet gained the status enjoyed by his mother. Zardari’s image has not gained any boost in the meantime. The political forces have only lost strength and they remain weak and divided. The PPP has adopted a desperate political strategy to wriggle out of its current problems and the Zardari family has decided to fight it out like a family. That could mean Bilawal going down with his father. Does Asif Ali Zardari have a PhD in politics?
The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.