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December 31, 2015

The PPP in doldrums


December 31, 2015

The PPP seems to be in the doldrums in terms of its mass appeal, ideological moorings, organisational transition, dualist leadership and an overall poor image. Has the party lost its historical relevance and degenerated into a party without a cause in its post-Benazir Bhutto inverse transformation?

The PPP is at the last wits of its third transition under its magical leader-in-law, Asif Ali Zardari, who continues to run a mass party through remote control. With an eye on the next general elections in 2018, he is still under the illusion that he will be in a position to strike a comeback as the next prime minister.

Despite a countrywide debacle in the last elections, in Punjab in particular, Zardari has a unique political algebra in his mind about what he expects to be a hung parliament that would need a great coalition maker – which he undoubtedly is. That is why, despite handing over the showpiece of a skeleton called the PPP to the heir-in-waiting, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, he has assumed direct chairmanship of the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPP-P) – the parliamentarian wing of the once popular PPP.  

This is a unique but self-contradictory, or reinforcing, combination that could be described as the PPP’s fourth transition: Bilawal Bhutto carrying the mantle of the charismatic Benazir Bhutto Shaheed and leading a PPP with clipped wings; and at the back of it Zardari conducting real politick through a coterie of his surrogates and feudal elite by virtue of the PPP Parliamentarian – which still matters in power politics, even if its fortunes are dwindling by the day.

Before these last two accidental (Zardari’s rise) and shabby (Asif Zardari not letting and Bilawal not asserting) transitions, the most dynamic second transition of a populist PPP took place under a most dynamic and no less charismatic leader than Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto. She took over the reins of a shattered PPP under the reactionary and despotic military rule of General Ziaul Haq who not only hanged the most popular leader of Pakistan, but also put tens of thousands of democracy-supporting activists behind bars.

Co-chairing the PPP with her mother, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, BB got rid of most of the elders who had capitulated with the military ruler and brought in her own team, which mostly consisted of middle-class progressive intellectuals. It was not smooth sailing in a patriarchal society and she had to sideline even her mother who wanted her vengeful son to share the leadership.

That was the time when the Soviet-inspired Left wave was waning and a unipolar world was emerging from the ashes of the cold war, culminating in the the demise of Soviet Union. Emerging as the symbol of the democratic movement, Benazir redefined Bhuttoist PPP’s populism on moderate social-liberal lines. She replaced Bhutto’s authoritarian methods with democratic ethos, bureaucratic-socialism with public-private partnership, anti-India chauvinism with friendship with neighbours and kept the populist appeal for the poor with an inclusive sustainable development paradigm. I

t was a unique metamorphism of the populism of the yesteryears when Bhutto’s populism emerged amid broad class stratification and a worldwide wave of radicalism and socialism in the late 60s.

Populism was a variant of socialism in the third word; it emerged side by side with communism and social democracy in a global political divide between the West and the East. Despite the disparate nature of populism, it had some common features – such as ambiguity of ideology, restructuring of power structures, mass-appeal among various sections of poverty-stricken people and the middle strata, and a charismatic leader with authoritarian undertones, embodying the aspirations of the masses.

Bhutto combined his quasi-socialism with anti-neocolonial moorings while building a coalition of rural and urban masses and the feudal elite against the 22 monopolistic capitalist families. Around his charismatic appeal he built a mass base that is still enamoured with the Bhutto name as well as with populist symbolism.

From Bhutto to BB there was an organic transition that continued to keep the bond between a charismatic and more humane BB and the people across the country till the 2013 elections.

The PPP, in its third transition, under Zardari took a U-turn on popular politics since he thought that under the hegemony of capitalism there is no space left for any kind of socialist or people-centric politics. And he thought that the Bhuttos’ confrontation with the powerful establishment was fatal. He intelligently turned Ms Bhutto’s reconciliation paradigm between the civilisations into an opportunist capitulation between the adversaries of centre-left and centre-right politics. For him politics was an art of Machiavellian manipulation and an instrument to gain power and pelf.

But, to be fair to Zardari, he kept a semblance of liberalism and democratic pragmatism while keeping the PPP together. He was never a popular leader, nor did he have any desire to be so. Numerous corruption scandals distorted his public image further. His uncharacteristic leadership broke the very vital organic pre-requisite of a popular party that entirely depended on the charismatic appeal of the Bhuttos.

In the post-communism period, the plight of the poor masses has become even worse; and social and class issues require a social democratic response. With the ideological demise of a centre-left platform, the people are left at the mercy of various shades of right-wing politics. It was Ms Bhutto who set a new liberal, secular and social democratic agenda for the PPP to follow during her last mass campaign. The PPP reaped the fruits of her mobilisation and, finally, of her martyrdom.

The PPP is now seen as a party of the past with no future vision nor any commitment with its traditional constituency among the poor across the country. Reduced to Sindh and monopolised by parasitic feudal landlords, it is not even capable of putting up a brave fight against a centre dancing to the tunes of authoritarian forces.

In its fourth transition, the PPP is putting into jeopardy the emergence of yet another Bhutto that the populist party immediately requires for its revival. Putting Bilawal on the forefront of a party, not to contest the next elections, with the PPP Parliamentarian reaping the benefits of his potential appeal is not going to work.

As opposed to Benazir, who had to dispose off her mother to clear any confusion over the party’s chain of command, Bilawal does not appear to be the kind to repeat what BB did to assert her leadership. BB was not spoon fed, she fought for her right to emerge as a leader. Bilawal, on the other hand, seems to be too meek to look beyond his scheming father. Should we conclude that, in its fourth transition, the PPP is crawling towards extinction in the absence of a popular leader with an unimpeachable character?

The writer is a political analyst.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA

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