One look at the national political landscape and you can’t be blamed for thinking the PPP is dead as a political party. Well, almost. The spirit of the Sindh Cultural Festival notwithstanding, it only reaffirmed the party’s desire to reinvent itself in a Sindhi nationalist mode.
Serious observers feel it ceded political space to other parties even before the election. Seven months on, it does not seem any keen to reclaim it. There is no urgency, planning or strategy in place to fight or win the impending local bodies election nor is there any introspection in sight.
Frankly, the ship looks as rudderless as before the election. Perhaps, even more. One wonders how the content of speeches in Naudero on December 27 would differ from the ones delivered last year. If anything, it would be a good opportunity to see the distinction between how people from outside look at the party’s defeat in the May election and how the party looks at itself.
Post-May 2013, some obvious questions to ask from the party would be: is the PPP ready to reinvent itself as a political party; does the party need to move closer to or away from its stated ideological moorings or does it need a new narrative altogether, considering the demands of changing times; who is effectively leading the party at the moment and how distinct is the father-son mode/style of politics; and, lastly, is it time to write a requiem for the party or will it bounce back as a vibrant political force.
The pre-election time is interesting to observe. Everybody could see the PPP had withdrawn from the election. "This [attitude was] a product of four years of court cases around corruption, which brought the party profile down. They showed signs of hoplessness. Defeatism got them down even before defeat," says political scientist Dr Mohammad Waseem.
Taj Haider, general secretary PPP Sindh, thinks the country is in a state of civil war where religious extremism rules. The defeat was inevitable because "we were not allowed to campaign. The former PM’s son was abducted from a corner meeting just before the election. But we accepted the election results and congratulated the ‘agencies’ on the results."
There is obviously a disconnect between the analysts’ view of the party’s defeat and the party’s own view. A source from within the party, who is known to be close to the younger Bhuttos, points out that it is part of the defence mechanism of the older generation that "there was a global conspiracy against the PPP."
Ironically, this was also the stated position of the co-chairman and former president Asif Ali Zardari.
The source confides that senior leader and member Central Executive Committee, Aitzaz Ahsan, was given this task to formally prepare a report on what happened in the May election. "Now, when the top party leadership has already expressed its mind about global conspiracy’ against the party, whoever is assigned the task of fact-finding will never go against the position of the party leadership," says the source. "Given the hierarchy in the party, it is logical the party leader will take any other viewpoint as personal slight."
No wonder, the party appears so clueless to everybody. "They don’t appear to have any strategy because they still haven’t overcome the shock of defeat. This was not the kind of result they were anticipating. They have yet to swallow defeat, let alone comprehend it," says senior political commentator and tv anchor, Nusrat Javeed.
While Javeed thinks that Asif Zardari is still leading the party in its day-to-day affairs, Dr Waseem thinks there is no role left for Zardari. He cannot hope to become the next prime minister (having served as president once) and as head of the party, too, he lost the election and quite badly.
Both of them underscore the need for reorganisation of the party at the grass roots level. But, Javeed says, it is important to understand "what should they sell; what is the new narrative and if they have thought of one. They need a massive process of soul-searching, a vibrant session of self-criticism."
Waseem is clear about the new narrative, which should be especially relevant to Punjab where the defeat was ignominious. If Bilawal Bhutto is to hold the reins, his best bet should be "to first talk about the minorities -- both religious and sectarian who are in a sizeable number in Punjab. Two, he must give a new discourse against terrorism, Islamic right, Jihadism, anti-Indianism, anti-Amercianism, etc. Three, he has to take along underprivileged classes, small communities, operate on an anti-elite level."
Javeed agrees the party can build on its pro-poor, anti extremism, anti-terrorism, anti-inequality, anti-consumerism narrative. "But the danger for it is that it can’t take this narrative to the people at a time when its failure is still fresh in peopleminds. It is probably waiting for a decent break in which people forget its failures."
Punjab seems to be on everybody’s mind. Waseem is clear about organising the party in Punjab, reviving the workers and a network. "Mian Manzoor Wattoo was a disaster for the party." The anonymous party source concurs. "If you give control of the party to Manzoor Wattoo, it means you have accepted defeat."
Taj Haider sees Punjab’s case a little differently. More than organisational issues, he thinks religion is the problem. "Punjab has been divided on religious grounds in the last hundred years and the communal killings have their roots in the colonial period. I believe that Punjab is as much against extremism as Sindh. I think we need to get the issues cleared up, especially the issue of extremism."
The party source thinks the fault lies in the way politics was conducted. "By overplaying the Takht Lahore card, the party abdicated central and upper Punjab. They just created this South Punjab bogey, confused it with Bahawalpur and then left it in the middle." The people of South Punjab felt they were left in the lurch and responded by not voting PPP into power.
"If the party made Nawaz Sharif the leader of Punjab, which it has, then it can say goodbye to national politics for good," he says.
PPP’s biggest mistake, which it seems to have not realised till today, is that it sees everything in terms of an “ideological” battle and is not talking about the “delivery systems” or “governance”. For some genuine reasons, including the fact that the PML-N has been ruling the province since 1983, it does not know the delivery mechanisms in Punjab the way it knows them in Sindh. "You can mock the Metro Bus system but the fact remains that it was a delivery mechanism," he adds.
Even if the party was to learn from all the mistakes and agrees to move ahead, the first challenge it must face is the role of Asif Ali Zardari in the future running of the party. There is a fundamental difference in the Zardari and Benazir Bhutto approach towards politics. The Zardari model is that of the power elite model, or the chess board model of politics which is effective in running the government. But that works in the post-election scenario and cannot help win an election. So it didn’t.
BB’s model of politics was different. She acted as if politics was her ‘inherited property’, which in a way it was, but she also took it very professionally. Thus, she would maintain regular contacts with party workers, send 200 emails every day, etc. She is said to have both the sensibilities.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, therefore, has two different models to look up to and, of the two, he appears to be looking in his mother’s direction. The father carries a lot of baggage, especially in Punjab, which BBZ does not. He can associate with whatever little good the party did in the last five years and also condemn what was bad. It depends on whether he, too, buys into the conspiracy model or starts afresh.
Five years is a long time for the PPP to organise and campaign. Let’s see if it is able to do that.