The return of Zardari

Source:  The News Published in Politics on Monday, December 26, 2016

Behind the façade of celebrations, an atmosphere of gloom has descended upon the PPP. On December 23, Asif Ali Zardari returned to Pakistan, ending his 18-month-long self-imposed exile.

This must be a difficult time for him, but the party he left behind went through a period of revival in his absence. During this period, the PPP was able to get much-needed respite from relentless criticism and non-stop ridicule. It suddenly appeared that Bilawal had come of age and a new PPP was taking shape. The honeymoon, it appears, is now over and the party will resume its downward spiral under his wise leadership.

Even before Asif Ali Zardari’s plane touched the tarmac, the narrative around the PPP had reversed. The media was discussing the forced leave granted to Sindh IGP AD Khwaja and the raid conducted on the office of one of his non-political friends by the Sindh Rangers – which turned out to be a goof-up as they, fooled by the homonym, raided the subsidiary of a bank instead). Both incidents were linked to Asif Ali Zardari’s business interests, particularly related to the sugar industry that stands against the interests of the peasants and farmers. Whether true or false, this is the Zardari of the public imagination and the Pakistani media that has proved to be a nemesis of the party he leads.

The real-life Zardari may be very different from the Zardari of the legend but it is the man in the legend who matters more to politics. To be fair, during the eight years of his stewardship of the PPP, Zardari was able to make a substantial contribution to national politics and democratic development in the country. 

After taking over the reins of the party following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, Zardari has been able to keep the party united. Barring a small and failed rebellion by Naheed Khan and associates, the party has not faced any internal uprising. He was also able to provide leadership to the party during 2008 elections – though much of the work had been done by Benazir before her death – that resulted in 31 percent votes and PPP-led governments in the centre as well as in Sindh and Balochistan.

During the party’s five-year rule, he stuck to the Charter of Democracy, forced Pervez Musharraf to resign, and played a lead role in the passage of the 18th Amendment – the second most important legislative development in nation’s history after the 1973 constitution.

Unfortunately, the PPP’s tenure coincided with natural calamities, terrorism, a global financial crisis and the doubling of oil prices. Since it was the first tenure of a democratic government after martial law, his government faced serious conflicts with the judiciary and the establishment. The then chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, who is now seen as a villain across the board, was then beloved of the opposition and successfully created a logjam in the system that kept the government in survival mode.

Whatever contribution the PPP made during the period remained unsung and it had to walk with the albatross of inefficiency and corruption around its neck. For example, the PPP was able to bring down inflation from 22 percent in 2008 to seven percent in 2013 despite high oil prices. However, what people saw and the media reported was mehengai (inflation) linked to corruption. Our exports reached a record level and there has been a serious decline since the PML-N government took over.

Much of Zardari’s achievements can be attributed to his reconciliatory temperament and his reconciliation has also proved to be the rope around the PPP’s neck. In my opinion, Zardari completely misunderstood Benazir’s idea of reconciliation. While the Charter of Democracy and Benazir’s idea of reconciliation was about setting new norms and changing the rules of the game in politics, Zardari applied it to the game itself. This essentially forced the PPP to sit on the fence while the PTI fought a battle against Nawaz Sharif and captured an anti-Nawaz vote bank.

Zardari likes to operate like the head of a panchayat. This is a unique talent in a segmented society. Unfortunately, people like Jagga lookalikes, who appear to be challenging panchayats, not their heads. The PPP itself, as a friend put it, was loved as a party of mazahamat (resistance) and not a party of maslihat (reconciliation).

It was during Zardari’s leadership that the PPP lost the pulse of the people and Punjab slipped out of its hands. Though the party had started losing Punjab much earlier, it was during this period that the province was alienated completely. While the PPP failed to grasp the social changes that swept the country, the PTI claimed the space that was opened up by the former’s unpopularity and became the second most popular party in no time.

More than anything else, the PPP needs a new beginning under a charismatic leader. As our political parties have no internal democracy, such changes can only come from succession. The last 18 months created the impression of the promised transition and the party leadership shifting hands from the father to the son, who was seen carrying the mantle of his maternal family.

This transition is being thwarted by the abbu and phupho who infantilise him in public despite his achievements. Days before returning to Pakistan, Asif Zardari told Hamid Mir in an interview, “It was such a time that I had to take the back seat. I wanted Bilawal to move forward and take responsibilities so that he could learn something. Because when elders are around a plant cannot grow. Now that plant is growing and you can see Mashallah and he is doing very well.”

Nothing is more dangerous to the development of a young person than this attitude, which Carl Jung terms the attitude of the ‘devouring mother’ who, like a dragon, wants to keep the child inside her belly. While the old king is adamant, the young prince is not showing the courage to either prefer empire over kinship loyalties or push the old order down the cliff. It is not his career that is at stake but one of the most precious political assets of this country – the party of the poor that does not belong to the poor any longer.

How out of touch the PPP  is with today’s political realities can be seen in its four points. It is a party whose 50-year-old slogans still carry the power to energise people. But all this has been reduced to those lacklustre four points that even party leaders have not been able to memorise. You have to be anything but a politician to feel that people can be mobilised around four or forty points. When was the last time, a revolutionary movement was launched around a four-point agenda? I am sure they have come from Zardari Sahib himself.

Zardari’s absence from the centre stage was the best gift that the PPP had received since 2007. For the sake of the party, the country and his own inheritance, he should return this gift back.

By Zaigham Khan

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.


Twitter: @zaighamkhan

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