SLOWLY but surely, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is making his presence felt on the national political scene. Though still raw and a novice, he has infused new life into the PPP that many thought was on the ventilator. He has certainly inherited the charisma and the mass appeal of the Bhuttos that has been missing from the party since the assassination of his mother.
But can he provide the kind of intellectual leadership that is needed to transform the party into a dynamic political force representing the country’s new social and political realities?
It requires much more than just evoking the Bhutto martyrdom image to rebuild the party and allow it to reclaim its lost position as one of the most powerful national parties. Bilawal may have inherited the PPP’s leadership mantle, but there is much more that is required if he is to become a national leader in his own right.
It is, indeed, a daunting challenge for the young PPP chairman who is still not fully versed in the complexities of Pakistani politics. He remains trapped between two conflicting legacies — one inherited from his illustrious grandfather and mother, the other from his wily father.
Bilawal promises to revitalise and reform the party. But there is no indication yet of him making decisions independently. He is still under the tutelage of his father and aunt, and it is difficult to imagine him breaking away from their control. All the important decisions pertaining to the party and the Sindh government are still made by Asif Ali Zardari, who has been out of the country for more than a year. The party is being remote-controlled from Dubai.
This raises the question of whether Bilawal has merely been brought to the front to stem the rot in the party. Not long ago, Asif Zardari was of the view that his son was politically immature and had still to learn the ropes. There were also reports of a serious rift between father and son. But the re-launching of Bilawal indicates some kind of compromise.
Pressure from the party rank and file also seemed to be a strong factor in the return of Bilawal to active mass politics. For many party loyalists, there was no hope of the PPP’s revival with Mr Zardari at the helm, and without the popular appeal that had helped the party stay connected to the masses even at the worst of times.
After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the party saw a steep fall in its popular support base. An accidental leader, Mr Zardari tried to break from Benazir Bhutto’s legacy, virtually changing the face of the party. He has believed more in political wheeling and dealing to survive in power. He may have been successful in completing his five-year term in office and leading the transfer of power from one elected government to another. Yet, the absence of governance and alleged corruption at the highest levels during the party’s government alienated the electorate.
Hence the routing of the party in the 2013 parliamentary elections did not come as a surprise. While the party has retained power in Sindh largely because of the Bhutto name — albeit also because of a lack of any effective competition — its mass appeal has certainly shrunk. With Sharjeel Memon and Owais Muzaffar (Tappi) emerging as the face of the provincial government, the credibility of the party hit a new low.
Believed to be close associates of the aunt, they have fled the country ostensibly to escape investigation into corruption. The change of the chief minister may have marginally improved governance, but there has not been any significant change in the overall situation in the party’s citadel of power.
But the party has suffered the biggest setback in Punjab, where it has virtually been wiped out. It is true that support for the PPP in Punjab had been eroding for the past many years; it had nevertheless maintained a sizeable support base, particularly in southern Punjab. But it has lost ground there to the PTI, simply because the party has nothing to offer to the electorate. Many provincial leaders who stood by the party in its most difficult times have now joined the PTI. This has reduced the PPP into a Sindh-based party. It will indeed be a tough task to reorganise the party and bring former loyalists back into the fold.
It may be true that the PPP still has a more progressive ethos compared to other mainstream political parties on issues such as women rights and the battle against terrorism. But the party’s falling credibility has weakened its impact. It is hard to defend the party against such heavy baggage of incompetence and an image tainted by allegations of corruption.
Undoubtedly, the party still has some of the finest and brightest politicians in its ranks, but they have been pushed aside. The party needs complete revamping. It is equally important to review its policies to make it politically relevant in the existing situation. With no clear policy direction, it is hard to mobilise support, especially among the new generation. With the majority of population below the age of 25, the party cannot hope to capture the imagination of the youth with the politics of the shrine.
Bilawal tries to emulate his grandfather in his public speeches without understanding the context of the politics of that period. The world has changed over the past four decades and the party needs to evolve to remain politically relevant.
He must learn from the example of his mother who, while upholding her father’s populist legacy, brought significant changes to the party’s policies in accordance with changing political realities. She emerged as a leader in her own right only after she jettisoned the baggage of the so-called uncles. With them around, she would never have been able to take charge and reshape the party. Understandably, it will not be that easy for the young PPP chairman to break away from his guardians. His and the PPP’s political future depend on the legacy he chooses to follow.
The writer is an author and journalist.