After the assassination

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

guest-contributorTaking the assassination of Benazir Bhutto as a watershed, in what direction has the traumatized PPP travelled? One could say it parted ways from both its own realities and national ones. Playing upon the deep-seated tradition of deference to the dead and intense emotional rebound to the political tragedy, her successors rapidly recast the dynamically minded Benazir into a figurehead of persecuted martyrdom.

The process facilitated the PPP’s emergent leader in personally securing party control and subsequently obtaining and retaining executive and legislative leadership.

It is now political blasphemy for the party hierarchy not to pay unthinking homage to voices that speak with oracular authority from what has become the Bhutto-Zardari shrine. The tragic irony is that this idolization is sounding a death-knell for the uniquely vital mainstream national party:

For politics is a practical game, and politicians are judged in terms of performance. For that matter, Benazir too is generally recognized for what she was and strove to be as well as grieved over for the dastardly assassination that eliminated her.

Since 2007 Mr Asif Zardari has been the determinant of party practice and position: both in terms of policy and individual elevation and preferment. And though he plays politics brilliantly and is deemed impossible to outwit, his focus has not been national nor has it been constructive.

He amassed informal personal powers and certainly enabled others to amass wealth. In dispensing patronage and obtaining goals, the party’s servitors developed the proverbial use of the carrot and stick into a tactical use of reward and intimidation that has nothing to do with respect for civil law or the primacy of public civic interests.

As the PPP formed the central government and had outreach and grassroots this meant that corruption and coercion permeated the social fabric and almost became the sanctioned mode.

It says much for the practice of democracy in Pakistan (impugned as it is) that the PPP’s electoral returns were considerably reduced in the national elections marking the shabby completion of its mandated tenure. Even so, Mr Zardari’s party control remains unchallenged; and in adjusting his style in management for the altered situation he is fixated on his own preservation subsequent to the expiry of his protected presidential standing.

Whether the cry raised is Pakistan khappey or Suba khappey the party commitment is to private causes. Perhaps party bigwigs share dilemmas of evading inquiry and accountability and so are not working on a healthier reset of the manner and nature of party functioning or management in and out of parliament.

The party’s inertia in exploring alternate leadership enfeebles the entire national democratic process.

A wilful erosion of nationally as well as provincially responsible sensibilities within a PPP that forms a provincial government and, given its remarkable history, commands as much national and international significance as the PML(N) is worse than deplorable.

Mr Zardari’s legendary political antennae may be indicating that he has grown too strongly individualized in the public eye and he has re-launched his Bhutto-Zardari children as personal anchors in the safe havens of Bhutto-ism. Previously, Bilawal had been deployed to capture the youth market. The gambit failed electorally.

Whispers of an ‘independent’ outlook that kept him away from his father’s turf were not quashed and he remained amorphous and dormant, offstage more often than not. But since Mr Zardari continues remaining offshore in a state of ill-health, Bilawal was clicked out of standby mode and apprentice-ship and has taken or been allotted more palpable party stewardship.

His recent appearance at the assassination anniversary and resounding endorsement of his absent father’s wilder statements do not presage a fresh party outlook or a deviation from patriarchal authority and direction.

The PPP’s ill-served and distressed national constituency necessarily has a wider perspective than its jiyalas and personal beneficiaries. Bilawal will evoke indulgence for his youth and vulnerability.

But the untried young man, a proxy player of politics who has only a derived ancestral political placement, cannot, in Pakistan’s highly fraught existing political context, be taken seriously in the role of a mainstream party chairman by non-partisans.

His mother, Benazir, encashed her father’s vote-bank; and Bilawal’s father encashed his wife’s. The national account has not been replenished and Bilawal is in some danger of losing his claim on his maternal legacy by holding on to his share in the paternal one.

And Bilawal’s promoters overlook that before Bhutto’s heiress presented any inherited vote-bank cheques she held for public endorsement she had more than earned her place as party leader in sustained open opposition to a ruthless deviant regime. The young woman’s demonstrated courage and political relevance commanded general respect.

Right now Pakistan, not just a beleaguered provincial government in Sindh, is in turbulent waters. It is whimsical to visualize the sequestered and young Bhutto-Zardaris as other than party logos.

If the PPP top brass cannot demand or find mature vibrant chairmanship of their mammoth party, its orphaned vote-bank, which includes immensely articulate and seasoned emancipated liberals must do more – much, much, more – to restore the mammoth but presently endangered national asset ZAB founded to democratic health and relevancy.

The PTI roadshow has had two years in parliamentary opposition and provincial government which have so far reduced rather than enhanced its practical democratic appeal. Citizens have not found a messiah working a miracle waving a willow bat; and they would rather not revert to messiahs waving military batons in civil political space.

But they do not want to have that political space held hostage by Mafiosi; or parliamentary business conducted in a kitchen cabinet.

Pakistanis do not deem their country a feudal fiefdom; a corps commander’s appendage; or a private family enterprise: Are our sundry Sharifs listening? 2018 is halfway here.