ISLAMABAD: Benazir Bhutto would not recognise her party if she were to see it today. It is no longer the Pakistan People’s Party that she inherited from her father and neither is it the one she may have wanted to bequeath to her children, or her party faithful. And anyone knowing Benazir’s passion would agree that hers must be a tortured soul today, anguished by the PPP’s deteriorating character, convoluted doctrines and altered structure. In a perverse manner, maybe it is better that she isn’t around to see the new PPP.

The first and foremost change is that of the faces calling the shots in the new-look PPP. Those in positions of primacy and power are not the ones who had struggled with her over decades. The new PPP’s prominent faces of Babar Awan, Rehman Malik, Farooq Naik, Latif Khosa — are relatively late entrants, who had been kept in their place when Benazir was at the party’s helm. The overly made-up media maidens — fondly known as the triple ‘F’ by their detractors — would not have come within miles of the presidency had Benazir still been alive.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that the people Benazir respected for their staunch support for over three decades are now not even invited to party functions. It was sad, for instance, to see the suave Aftab Shaban Mirani, whom Benazir held in high regard, relegated to the back rows during Asif Ali Zardari’s coronation as president. Actually, for a while he stood in a corner for want of a chair till an old party worker offered him one out of respect. The front rows were all occupied by Zardari’s family (which, one should never forget, is different from the Bhutto clan) and the heavy-moustached friends of his days as a jail bird. Seating order, rather than the pecking order, may sound a like trivial issue to bring up in a political piece but it reflects clearly the treatment meted out to the old guard by the Presidency on that auspicious day and signalled the shape of things to come.

By now all this is evident; the PPP we see now is Zardari’s party and not the one nurtured by Benazir. The co-chairperson of the PPP treats his wife’s friends and close party colleagues with contempt. The name of Naseerullah Babar, who could say anything to Benazir, is hardly mentioned; Benazir’s friend and former MNA Amna Piracha’s husband Saleem died recently and Zardari did not even visit her residence to offer condolences; her childhood friends Samia and Salma Waheed are not welcome in the Presidency; and Benazir’s favourite cousin and friend Tariq Islam and his wife Yasmin are rarely invited either.

Zardari’s supporters can and do point out that Benazir too sidelined those who had been close to her father and brought in and promoted new faces. But it must be remembered that she did all this over a decade; it took her that long to change the party structure left behind by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The famous ‘uncles’, Bhutto’s close party colleagues, were a handful for her. They treated her like a kid and thought that they, not she, should lead the PPP. Nonetheless, she did not shunt them out overnight. She retained the ones who accepted the change of command and gradually got rid of those who refused to accept it. Socialist ideologue Sheikh Rashid was given due respect in the PPP till the day he died. Sheikh Rafiq remained the party’s secretary for nearly a decade. The sons of the Makhdoom of Hala — Amin Fahim more than Khaliq — were also respected for the loyalty their family exercised towards the PPP leadership over the generations.

In fact, Benazir made sure that many of her father’s contemporaries were given more than just respect. Old timers such as Dr Ghulam Hussain were given party election tickets several times and Mairaj Khalid was made the National Assembly Speaker. Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, Rao Rashid and the incorrigible Jam Sadiq may have been phased out but Ghulam Mustafa Khar was forgiven and welcomed back each time the ‘lion of Punjab’ chose to sneak back like a cat to the PPP’s fold. In short, she always kept a fine balance between carrying on her father’s legacy and introducing her own structures, doctrines and policies to the PPP.

Zardari, on the other hand, works differently. He has changed everything — quickly and seemingly with a vengeance.

He has insulted and discarded the very people Benazir trusted. Amin Fahim being a case in point; even if Benazir had to refuse him the prime ministership or had to sideline him because of differences, she would have handled the situation more gracefully. (Rumour has it that the Makhdoom may just be whiling away time till the hour is ripe to part ways with the PPP.) Naheed Khan and Safdar Abbasi, the couple perhaps closest to Benazir, have been deemed party ‘untouchables’. Whoever goes near them is seen as ‘contaminated’ and hence banished from the power circle. They are monitored and their phones tapped round the clock. I saw a party worker tell an intelligence goon to include the names of a few ‘enemies’ in the list of people who meet Naheed Khan. They say this hate-list is the favourite read of President Asif.

Sherry Rehman is believed to have been cast out also on the basis of such manufactured intelligence. Raza Rabbani, another Benazir confidant, has been humiliated time and again and banished from the inner circle. If it was not bad enough that he was denied the Senate chairmanship, the president added insult to injury by acknowledging the services of Babar Awan for formulating the constitutional package instead of Rabbani, the real architect. Zardari, many say, draws a sadistic pleasure from such crude antics.

Such theatrics of the president merely reinforce the memory of Benazir’s generous heart and politician mind. For instance, she had disapproved of Aitzaz Ahsan’s somewhat independence stance on the sacking of the judiciary by General Pervez Musharraf in 2007, particularly in the earlier phase of the movement. But she never broke the channels of communication completely; in fact, in the end it was Ahsan who convinced her that it was in the PPP’s interests to support the movement. Zardari, on the other hand, has accepted the Chaudhry back grudgingly and he makes this obvious every now and then.

Similarly, the senior-most party stalwart, Afzal Sindhu has been replaced by Babar Awan a man with a dubious doctrata, a dubious past, and defeinitely dubious loyalty.Yousaf Talpur, Khalid Kharal, Malik Hakmeen, all of them were held in high esteem by Benazir and now they are ignored and scorned.

The only ones among the old guard who have slipped into the new era unscathed are Khurshid Shah, Naveed Qamar and Shah Mahmood Qureshi; they have adjusted to the new reality and are eating the proverbial ‘yogurt’ in their ministerial corners. Benazir’s closest associate Bashir Riaz, (Bash) who is shattered after Benazir, is contented to work on her life and achievements at the Bhutto Legacy Foundation.

It seems as if Zardari is avenging himself for all those days when Benazir’s close team gave him as much (political) importance as she wanted or he deserved which honestly speaking wasn’t much. He was practically sidelined from the party after his release from jail. In virtual exile, he was fated or rather compelled to live in New York stuck with very few playmates which included his two dogs, one Hussain Haqqani and 23 bank accounts. But then who knew that Benazir the political queen would suddenly die and Zardari would emerge as the king.

To be continued

Published on: thenews

Date: April 11, 2010