Tuesday October 26, 2021

Bilawal Bhutto — a man on horseback?

October 14, 2021
Bilawal Bhutto — a man on horseback?

PPP has made its way up to become a major power broker from its earlier pariah status, marred by cases of corruption, snarled by NAB and subjected to negative media publicity.

A bee line of tribal elders and sardars switching sides show they are reading the new reality. For example, two major figures from Balochistan – Sardar Sanaullah Zahri and Lt-Gen(R) Abdul Qadir Baloch – joined the PPP in the presence of its charismatic young Chairman Bilawal Bhutto recently. Balochistan's sardars and political heavyweights would never make public pronouncements until their guts tell them which way the wind is blowing. Even PTI's provincial president Sardar Yar Muhammad Rind is believed to be weighing in to jump in the PPP ship.

Suddenly Bilawal Bhutto looks prime ministerial in his speeches, posturing and demeanour, whereas the PPP has emerged as a significant actor to shape and direct the future political course of the country. How the PPP managed to revive its political fortune while all serious observers had already written it off as a mainstream national political force?

A confluence of internal and external factors has served the PPP to a point where it has become an improbable leading political force.

Without PPP playing its card smartly, the PTI government would have been sent off by now had it went along with PDM's hard line politics, resignations, agitation and its campaign against establishment. Yes, the PTI government would have been left with no choice but dissolve assemblies had PPP joined in PMLN to tender resignations. The PTI would have been cut to size if PPP embraced the PMLN proposal to oust Buzdar in Punjab.

The PPP withdrew support from PDM agitation, pulled the rug under its momentum charging on Islamabad and laying siege to the PTI government.

This time the PPP adopted a two-pronged strategy: first it refused to join the anti-establishment campaign of PMLN e.g. never indulged itself in abusing the top brass of the Army like PMLN supremo, and second it played an active role as opposition to PTI's governance crises.

In other words, it refused to provide shoulder to PMLN to undermine and off-balance the estb.

The PMLN is the PPP's principal political adversary not the PTI which has cast itself in law of diminishing cycle and morphed into a desperate political group seized with damage control by weak governance.

However, what is going in the PPP's favour is the hard posture of the PMLN against the estb and its leverage as a moderate political force one can do business with.

The PMLN is though a significant political force of GT Road and has a formidable vote bank and following, it has failed to tone down anti-estb rhetoric. So far, there seems to be less chance of the PMLN supremo Nawaz Sharif and his firebrand daughter Maryam Nawaz to moderate their bitter political rivalry with the estb. Their political narrative on civil-military relations akin to the Bangladesh model will improbably get any traction in the Pakistani context.

The response of the estb towards the notional civilian supremacy of Constitution as per the PMLN’s vision will be characterised by in large wariness and portends a potential template to politicise the Army strategically and operationally, like a police for example, hence compromising the institutional and gravitational prowess and its command and control system eventually.

Leaving aside the PMLN’s political posture towards the estb, the PPP did not let PTI settle down.

As a consistent opposition leader, Bilawal Bhutto bled the political capital of the PTI on the governance issues. Particularly on foreign policy, strategic orientation and international relations of Pakistan, the PPP battered PTI team. He particularly hit PM Imran Khan where it hurts the most: Biden’s phone call issue, Afghanistan basing debate, relations with GCC countries. Interestingly, asides from PPP’s special relations with Biden admin and Bilawal’s visit to Washington was a clever message by PPP that only he is worthy of bridging Pakistan with Biden admin not PM Imran Khan, hence underscoring his utility.

Where Imran Khan once used to club both PPP and PMLN as corrupt lot having no future in the country, it is no less than a nightmare for him that the PPP has successfully manoeuvred to impact and reconfigure the political calculus of the estb. It has offered itself as a fall back option to turn around the country’s challenges in foreign policy and economy in partnership with other political forces putting an end to polarisation and divisive politics of the PTI government.

The brain behind the political direction of PPP is Asif Ali Zardari who is both a strategic mover and master tactician of the political world. He is a very hard negotiator bargaining with a ratio of one for two.

NAB cases, concessions in trial and other issues are of tactical significance to him. He is eying on the throne of both Islamabad and Punjab.

Preoccupied with strategic changes in the region, terrorism rearing its ugly head and foreign policy pressures, the estb would want to seek an end to political uncertainty and resolution to multiple crises of governance. This is where PPP fits the bill. It has a role of stabiliser in the system.

The endgame of PTI government politically disappearing from the scene is not yet determined. Neither it seems to have leverage to ward off PPP’s conceivable move as the next vacuum filler, nor it can lean on the estb to eschew looking for second best political option i.e. the PPP in this case. Also the PTI can no longer dismiss the idea that the PPP is waiting in the wings to capitalise on its failures, as trivial, nor can it pretend everything is hunky-dory.

Pragmatism and unapologetic commitment to its core interest, i.e. not to sacrifice Sindh govt on the altar of PMLN’s benefit in Punjab, is the underlying motivation for the PPP not to scuttle the existing set-up.

Having said that, the PPP definitely created a space for its role by outsmarting PMLN and benefiting PTI govt’s vulnerabilities. It has the capacity to head a potential post-Imran political coalition, but its willingness to act accordingly will only come if Bilawal Bhutto is tipped as the next prime minister.

So far by all probability the PPP is destined to play a major role in the coming months. But, like any other plan pregnant with error, this scenario may not necessarily pan out the way it has been laid out.

Jan Achakzai is a geopolitical analyst, a politician from Balochistan and an ex-adviser to the Balochistan Government on media and strategic communication. He remained associated with BBC World Service. He is also Chairman of the Institute of New Horizons (INH) & Balochistan. He tweets @Jan_Achakzai