Some people refuse to believe that Benazir Bhutto or her party can ever do any good. Such people suffer from a pathological hatred of the Bhuttos which has its roots in history. There is nothing Ms Bhutto can do to win them over.
There are many more, however, who were once PPP supporters but have now switched loyalties and become critical of Ms Bhutto either because she has not lived up to her promises or because they have progressively lost confidence in her ability to provide the sort of honest and efficient government this country desperately needs. Such people have become so cynical that even when Ms Bhutto tries to do something right or is successful in implementing some policy, they are not prepared to concede an inch to her. Ms Bhutto should worry about what such people think or say. She must try to regain their respect and confidence because their number is growing by the day and their views and votes could adversely affect her political career.
Benazir Bhutto was at the peak of her popularity when she swept into power in 1988. But, for a host of reasons (many of her own making), a majority of Pakistanis were relieved when she was ousted in 1990. If an election had been held within fifteen days of her ouster, she would have lost it fair and square. Fortunately for her, however, in the three months leading up to the new elections President Ishaq Khan’s rigid bias and open hostility against her began to show. Within two months, there was such a surprising resurgence of sympathy for Ms Bhutto that the establishment was compelled to go for an “overkill” by rigging the next election. The sympathy built up for Ms Bhutto during the interim period increased when the elections were “stolen” from her. It continued to grow during Mr Nawaz Sharif’s time when Ms Bhutto, her spouse and her party were hounded from pillar to post by Jam Sadiq Ali and Ghulam Ishaq Khan.
All this would not have amounted to anything if Mr Sharif had not suddenly, in early 1993, acquired an inexplicable death wish. When Mr Sharif fell in April of that fateful year, it was not because he had become unpopular or because Ms Bhutto had cashed in a wellspring of renewed sympathy for herself, but because Mr Sharif failed to appreciate the alacrity with which Ms Bhutto flung away her idealism and became an opportunist like himself.
After Mr Sharif bounced back, thanks to Justice Nasim Hasan Shah’s brilliant perception of the rising mood of discontent against Mr Ishaq Khan, Ms Bhutto was quick to demonstrate the depth of her pragmatism. She was now prepared to go to any lengths to remove him from power. If Mr Sharif had not resigned in July, the army would have been forced to take over. But adversity makes for strange bedfellow. Mr Sharif was now compelled to take a leaf from Ms Bhutto’s book on “populism” just as she had freely borrowed from his tome on the “establishment” a few months earlier.
Ms Bhutto scraped through in the 1993 elections partly because the rural areas of the Punjab and Sindh retained a measure of historical sympathy for her and partly because Mr Sharif’s policies had been oriented towards the urban middleclass rather than the rural poor. Ms Bhutto cashed in all her cards to become prime minister. This has meant that, as the incumbent, she will have to rebuild her hand as assiduously as possible during her second term if she wants to complete it and have a fighting chance to win a third. In the meanwhile, Mr Sharif will attract the sympathy vote while Ms Bhutto in government suffers from her sins of omission and commission.
Ms Bhutto began well enough in November 1993. She built a coalition with the PML(J) and was able to solicit the MQM’s support in the Presidential election. Her cabinet was small. Mr Asif Zardari, whose pals had been banished from the PM’s house, seemed to be out of public sight. When Ms Bhutto said she was determined not to commit the sort of follies that had discredited her first regime, many people were inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Unfortunately, this optimism was short-lived. Her audacious plan to overthrow the PML(N) government in the NWFP (at the prompting of Mr Aftab Sherpao) was a throwback to the PPP’s conspiracies in another province (Balochistan) in 1973 and again in 1989. Her cynical horsetrading, followed by victimisation of the opposition, was another signpost to Punjab in 1989. Soon thereafter, Mr Zardari’s fingerprints seemed to crop up all over the place. The Mehrangate scandal was followed by l’affaire submarine. By the time the budget was tucked away, inflation was rampant and the business community was ready to take up arms again. Whatever sympathy was left for Ms Bhutto was thereafter eroded by dubious recruitments in the judiciary and suspicious reshuffles in the bureaucracy. By year’s end, Karachi was in flames (as in 1990) and the MQM had gone its own way. If Ms Bhutto was in a desperate rush to come full circle to the beginning, she couldn’t have taken a shorter or more damning route.
Meanwhile, a number of issues have cropped up from time to time and served to devalue the government further. Geneva seemed like a “humiliating debacle” because the government erred in raising expectations and then failed to realise them. The controversy over Gwadur alienated large sections of nationalist opinion because the government’s response was both belated and contradictory. The strife in Karachi has been pitched at breaking point because the government dragged its feet over cracking down on the Haqiqis and sectarian extremists. There has been a bitter reaction to the unravelling of the Chakwal “seismic station” because the government has not seen fit to take the people into confidence.
A lack of “confidence” in government seems to be at the root of many of Ms Bhutto’s problems. Her regime has, once again, widely come to be seen as incompetent, corrupt and uncaring. That is why many people are now prepared to believe the worst even when it may not be justified (as in the idle controversy over whether we have paid for 28 or 38 F-16s or in discussions revolving around the significance of the billions of dollars worth of MOUs signed by the government).
Urgent “confidence building measures” (CBMs) are therefore needed to create the grounds for good government. A start can be made by rooting out all corrupt civil servants and PPP politicians so that “accountability” does not continue to be mistaken for “victimisation”. Mr Zardari should restrain his “natural impulses” and lower his profile. Ms Bhutto should revamp her “team” by bringing in people of merit and making government more efficient and transparent. The next budget should be carefully drafted, with greater realism about revenue and expenditure targets and with a view to providing relief to large sections of the urban middle and lower classes. Ms Bhutto should demonstrate that she cares about Karachi by working towards a cohesive plan to save the city. And she should stop victimising the opposition and genuinely make them an offer of cooperation they cannot refuse.
The credibility gap between government and people is growing. Ms Bhutto cannot afford to shrug this off simply because there is no imminent threat to her regime. We would like to see her given credit when it is due (as for the US trip). There is no alternative for Ms Bhutto but to overcome her personal failings and move to repair her government’s shortcomings. Pakistan is not yet ungovernable. Her rulers must demonstrate their good intent and ability to rule or be prepared to be swept aside.