Tuesday February 07, 2023

Asif Zardari’s ‘Mission Punjab’

Zardari is also trying to bring back some former PPP leaders like Qasim Zia and Manzoor Watoo.

June 25, 2021
Former president Asif Ali Zardari in meeting with PML-Qs Ch Pervaiz Elahi.
Former president Asif Ali Zardari in meeting with PML-Q's Ch Pervaiz Elahi.

Former president Asif Ali Zardari is on ‘Mission Punjab,’ in a bid to find some space and new allies for future political set-up at a time when Punjab’s politics is completely polarized between two narratives, one led by the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, PTI, and the other by the main opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). The PPP, which is in dire straits in Punjab, may struggle to find that space.

The PPP on its own has never been able to form the government in Punjab since 1977. Even at a time when former prime minister Benazir Bhutto took the Punjab by storm in 1986-88, her landslide was blocked through Islami Jamoohri Ittehad, IJI, the brainchild of the-then establishment. But, the PPP always had a strong vote in Punjab till 2008, which saw a considerable and humiliating decline.

In the last 12 years, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, PTI, emerged as the real challenger for PMLN while getting considerable support. Many PPP ex-MNAs and MPAs joined the PTI in the last few years. While the PMLN votebank more or less remained intact, the PPP lost its ground and could not recover since then.

As the situation stands at present, the next political battle would be fought between the two on the same ground reflected from the recently held by-elections in the province. The forthcoming local bodies elections would be the key before the general elections. So, what Zardari is possibly looking at in the given circumstances? The Tareen factor, pre-dominant Shahbaz Sharif’s role in the PMLN and in between his relationship with PML-Q led by Speaker, Punjab Assembly, Ch Pervez Elahi, who has recently gained a lot of respect for the way he managed the Senate elections and the budget session in Punjab.

Close aides of Zardari are confident that the PPP will perform better in south Punjab in the next elections but situation on the ground presents a gloomy picture unless his Punjab team comprising Yusuf Raza Gillani, Raja Pervez Ashraf, Qamarzaman Kaira, Makhdoom Alam Khan and a few others manage to win over some ‘electables.’ Zardari is also trying to bring back some former PPP leaders like Qasim Zia and Manzoor Watoo.

At the organizational level, the PPP in the last few years has practically vanished or become too weak to challenge. Zardari also knows that beside PMLN and PTI, the third emerging force in Punjab is Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, TLP. What will be its role in the next election is also of importance. Who will gain in case its power shrinks in the national context? PTI or PMLN but certainly not PPP.

While PMLQ and PTI are in coalition both at the Centre and in Punjab, Chaudhry’s relationship with Prime Minister Imran Khan and vice versa was more of a ‘majbori’ rather meeting of like minded as like PPP and PMLQ. As it is, the PTI and PMLQ also have a bitter past. Imran Khan always brackets Chaudhrys in the same category as that of Sharifs and Zardari; he also blamed Pervez Musharraf for giving preference to them over him after the 2002 elections.

The Chaudhrys have also not forgotten PM’s remarks about Moonis Elahi when he refused to make him a Federal Minister. Yet, because of certain quarters' interference and interest, the two parties agreed on a coalition and Chaudhrys assured the PM that they would not let his government fall because of them.

In return, the PML-Q got extraordinary administrative and political powers in six Punjab districts, including Gujrat and Chief Minister Usman Buzdar didn't interfere.

But all these arrangements are upto the next elections and with one and a half years left, PML-Q is exploring news possibilities like Zardari. In this backdrop, Ch Pervez Elahi held a two-hour-long meeting with the former president at the Bilawal House, Lahore, which is of political significance. The two have discussed the ongoing political situation and the future political arrangement.

Zardari appreciated the way Ch Pervez Elahi managed the Senate elections and the former extended his complete support to the latter while the latter appreciated the role of Zardari in getting all the senators in Punjab Assembly unopposed by ensuring withdrawal of some candidates during the elections.

Though it is premature to say the amount of success he will get out of his recent visit to Lahore, considering the weakest position his own Pakistan People’s Party has had in Punjab since 2013 but in Chaudhrys of Gujrat, Zardari has found someone with whom he could make some breakthrough.

The two parties (PPP and PML-Q) have a bitter past but Zardari, months after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and after break-up with PMLN in 2008 when its minister quit the government over former president’s refusal to restore deposed judges soon, he went to the residence of Chaudhrys of Gujrat and surprised them when he not only offered Deputy Prime Minister’s position to Pervez Elahi but also ‘long term’ relationship.

Pervez Elahi once quoted Zardari while talking to me and said, “He came and surprised us when he said he came here to bury the past as he doesn't want our children to grow up with the legacy of hate against each other and we responded in the same manner.”

Pervez Elahi’s recent meeting with the leader of the opposition in the Punjab Assembly, Hamza Shahbaz, was also of political significance as the latter appreciated the way he conducted the budget session as speaker Punjab Assembly.

In yet another smart move, he managed smooth functioning of the Punjab budget session without any rumpus or pandemonium-like situation as in the National Assembly or in other Provincial Assemblies. He allowed protest of the opposition without much hue and cry during the budget speech and also convinced PTI MPAs not to react during the opposition leader's speech. Thus, the session went smoothly unlike what happened in the NA and other Provincial Assemblies, particularly in Balochistan and Sindh. Thus, unless the PPP sets its direction and reorganizes itself with a new narrative, there are little chances of PPP coming back in Punjab. Can Zardari’s ‘Mission Punjab’ be successful -- it depends on rifts and differences in PMLN and PTI.

The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of GEO, The News and Jang

Twitter: @MazharAbbasGEO