Posted on Friday, October 24, 2014
in The Friday Times (Editorial)
Bilawal Bhutto has been “launched”. The Karachi jalsa was big and his speech was animated. He unfurled the liberal flag (down with the Taliban, down with the PTI and MQM, down with the oppressors of minorities and up with “Bhuttoism”) to warm the cockles of die-hard Pipliya hearts.
Alas, the power of rented crowds, hackneyed words and empty promises has withered with an increasingly cynical and disgruntled populace. Simply drumming up “Bhuttoism” and clutching at “martyrdom” will not suffice any more. Since Bhuttoism was launched 45 years ago and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was martyred 35 years ago, the political profile and demographic landscape of the voter has changed significantly.
ZA Bhutto rose to power on the back of downtrodden rural peasants and urban workers. The four pillars of his political philosophy were (1) roti, kapra and makan (2) Islamic nationalism (3) anti-dynastic, anti-gentry power rule (4) anti-India stance. By the time Bhutto was martyred, he had not delivered on roti, kapra and makan, the Shimla Pact had overtaken anti-Indiaism, and he had embraced the feudal landowning classes all over again.
When Benazir Bhutto took over her father’s mantle, she was able to exploit his martyrdom. But she was also able to stake a political claim in her own right for opposing dictatorship and suffering imprisonment and exile before she was 30 years old. Therefore she was able to lead the PPP to victory in the 1988 elections despite desperate attempts by the military establishment to stop her. She returned to power in 1993 partly because she could claim victimhood (unfair dismissal in 1990) and partly because she was able to assure the military establishment of loyalty after it lost faith in Nawaz Sharif. But she was dismissed again in 1996 for alleged corruption and misrule; all the popular props of Bhuttoism, martyrdom and victimhood were lost to the PPP (even in Sindh), the jiyala drifted away in the Punjab and the voter sulked at home, so that the PPP could barely manage a presence in the 1997 parliament in Islamabad. The PPP’s fortunes rose again in 2007 when the Musharraf regime allied with Benazir (via the NRO) in order to stop Nawaz Sharif from exploiting his “victimhood”. Benazir’s assassination in 2008 on the eve of elections re-ignited the martyrdom factor and the PPP won the elections.
Bilawal’s job is a difficult one. He has inherited a party that has lost the sheen of Bhutto’s martyrdom and Benazir’s victimhood, down the generations. The memory of martyrdom has also been tarnished by a lingering perception of the last PPP government as corrupt and incompetent that “didn’t perform and deliver”. Demography is also weighing in against the PPP’s traditional rural vote bank – rapid urbanization has created new middle classes and youthful groups in Punjab, Karachi and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa with global perceptions and aspirations who have been ignored by the PPP and tapped by other parties and forces.
Indeed, the party that Bilawal has inherited is critically removed from the party that ZA Bhutto created and Benazir Bhutto tried to revive. “Bhuttoism” was anti-dynasty but Bilawal is totally dependent on it. Bhuttoism promised to deliver to the masses but neither Benazir nor Zardari were able to fulfill that promise sufficiently. Bhuttoism was anti-India but Bilawal cannot flog the same horse today because the current mood is anti-West and not anti-India. Bhuttoism was anti-feudal, anti-gentry. But the current PPP is choked with exploitative landlords, oppressive family dynasties and wheeling-dealing crony capitalists.
Imran Khan is trying to fill the void left by the PPP. Like Bhutto, he is anti-dynasty. Like Bhutto he is tapping into Islamic nationalism, except that he has substituted the “Islamophobic” West for Hindu India because this resonates more forcefully with a new generation which wants to trade with India and wage war with the ubiquitous CIA. Like Bhutto he is focusing on the powerless classes, except that that there are more of them amongst angry and underemployed youth in urban areas than in the countryside.
Bilawal cannot sufficiently revive the PPP by merely flogging Bhuttoism, martyrdom and victimhood. The young, urban, globalizing Pakistani is far more politically conscious and angry than his forlorn rural predecessor. Nothing less than a “reinvention” of the PPP is required from the young challenger based on economic, political and social policies that promise a radical redistribution of power and privilege in a welfare state which does business with the world with dignity and trust.
Some popular disillusionment will inevitably follow the failed dharna-policies and conspiracies of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri to seize power. Bilawal Bhutto should seize this opportunity to try and capture the imagination of the same classes and people to revive the flagging fortunes of the PPP.