Pakistan Peoples Party, despite all criticism, positive or negative, must be given credit for bringing politics to masses from drawing room, and keeping it alive during the last five decades and that too against all odds. But, has the 28-year-old Bilawal Bhutto Zardari the capacity to lead this party to election victory in 2018, when it would complete its golden jubilee on Nov 30.
The PPP, formed by Pakistan's most charismatic leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, would celebrate its 49th Foundation Day, today (Wednesday), in which Bilawal may announce his debut in the electoral politics to contest from his mother's seat in Larkana. Subsequently, he would become the youngest leader of the opposition in the National Assembly in order to gain some experience of the parliamentary politics before the general election.
It will be a challenge for the son of the third generation of ZAB, to bring back the party to its basic ideology along with the ground realities.
The transition of PPP from Bhutto to Benazir and from Asif Ali Zardari to Bilawal Bhutto saw the rise and fall of once country's only national party. Biggest challenge for him is to regain the lost popularity in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which at present is divided between Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
Space is still there for the PPP, among the downtrodden, labourers, farmers, minorities, women, provided party and its leadership is serious. They have not been able to set a good example of governance and to attract these classes even in its stronghold, Sindh.
There had been multiple conspiracies to finish PPP, starting with the elimination of Bhutto to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Besides, the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) was formed to curtail its landslide victory in 1988, famous 'Midnight Jackal’, planned to dislodge its first government in 1989, followed by 'Mehran Bank scam’, to rig elections. All these attempts had been made by successive establishments. Yet, the PPP survived before it lost due to its own poor performance.
As the party switched from Bhutto to Zardari it started finding difficulties despite victory in 2008 elections, though short of two-thirds majority. Former president Asif Ali Zardari, irrespective of the kind of perception he carries, credit goes to him, not only to see the party complete its full term, set few good examples by transferring his presidential powers to the parliament for the future generations.
Young PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto had announced weeklong celebrations on the Foundation Day, from November 30 to December 5, across the country.
The party leadership should have invited one of the founding leaders of the party, Dr Mubashir Hasan, in whose house the first convention was held on Nov 30, 1967, in Lahore, though he quit the party way back.
Bhutto's politics revolved around three basic principles, which he himself once defined prior to the formation of PPP: elimination of imperialism, self-reliance and economic independence. Despite controversies, he had few successes in getting close to these targets.
Bhutto took politics to masses and led from the front when it comes to sacrifices by giving his own life. Thousands went to prison, were flogged and some even sent to the gallows, few burnt themselves to save the life of their leaders. These are rare examples in the recent political history in this part of the world.
The PPP has a long history of struggle and no one can deny its role in strengthening democracy, keeping liberal and secular outlook. At times it perhaps compromises too much even on its principles in a bid to evolve national consensus.
In our charred political history, it is an unusual phenomenon, which kept it alive though it weakened particularly in the post-Benazir assassination period. The high-profile case remained unresolved even in the five years of the PPP government.
No political leader in Pakistan had reached out to the people the way Bhutto did. He went to the downtrodden and succeeded in giving them voice to speak against injustices.
His execution had completely changed Pakistan's political dynamics and the country never got the kind of leader, equally popular in the four provinces and of an international stature.
Even his worst critics remembered Bhutto as a non-corrupt and clean politician, who gave the country the first unanimous Constitution of 1973, a rare independent foreign policy, united the Islamic bloc and played a historic role in Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and launched the nuclear programme. He opened new avenues of job opportunities and sent thousands of Pakistanis to Middle East for better earning, set up the first heavy industry, Pakistan Steel.
He is criticised for political and media suppression, controversial economic policies and his bad judgment of holding early elections in 1977. The rest relates to the US-led foreign conspiracies to dismantle his government and make him a horrible example, as he was threatened by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, after he refused to close down the nuclear programme.
But to me his biggest drawback was a compromise he made on feudalism and as a result, leaders like the late JA Rahim, the late Mahmood Ali Kasuri, the late Meraj Mohammad Khan and someone like Dr Mubashir Hasan quit his party. But, some like Baba-e-Socialism, the late Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, remained associated with him despite differences.
Benazir Bhutto kept his father's mission alive till she returned from exile in 1986. She was lucky because she got a team of highly motivated political workers and leaders. She herself had the charisma and quality to lead from the front. She was never allowed smooth sailing to complete her term in the government due to conspiracies and allegations of corruption.
Benazir was a powerful voice against terrorism and extremism and as a result had many enemies, too. She became the first woman prime minister of the Islamic world. She finally became the victim of terrorism on Dec 27, 2007, at the famous Liaquat Bagh, Rawalpindi.
I once asked Benazir why she compromised with the establishment twice. Firstly, when she first returned to the country in 1986, and secondly when her victory was reduced in the 1988 elections. She said. "I returned to Pakistan, at a time when thousands of party workers were in jail. Had I challenged the powerful establishment, who only years back had hanged the most popular leader, they would have sent a few more to the gallows. Secondly, I am a woman and knows the sufferings of the family whose loved-ones are in jail. So, I did compromise to give workers some relief."
Begum Nusrat Bhutto was the most unlucky political leader. A witness to all these tragedies, she gallantly faced all this personal sorrow, but died after a prolonged illness. Her last meeting with her husband, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, in the death cell, 48 hours before his hanging, was once described by her to this writer, as the most unforgettable moments of her life. The then deputy commissioner Saeed Mehdi, once said in an interview, "Throughout the meeting, Benazir Bhutto kept taking notes while Begum Bhutto kept crying," he said.
Asif Zardari failed in retaining party's popularity at the grassroots level and left a difficult legacy for his son, Bilawal Bhutto.
Goals for Bilawal are difficult because unlike his mother he has to carry the excess baggage of non-ideological burden and perception of bad governance and corruption.
If Bilawal succeeds in bringing some revolutionary and drastic changes, the PPP would be in a better position to celebrate its 50th year in 2017, months before the next elections, if held as per schedule in May 2018.
The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang.