ISLAMABAD: President Asif Ali Zardari may have overly rushed in turning the Bhuttos’ PPP into a Zardari fiefdom. Nearly all of Benazir’s close associates and the party’s old guard have been replaced. The network of Zardari family and friends is a political disaster, worse than what the cronies and relatives of the Chaudhries of Gujrat and the Sharifs promote in their Leagues. And this may have serious consequences for the PPP.

Not that this is a recent strategy of Zardari, he has been pushing his friends and family on the party since his marriage to the Daughter of the East, despite his earlier resolve not to enter politics. She gave a PPP ticket to Zardari’s father, Hakim Ali Zardari, for the 1988 election and made him the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee during her first tenure. Hakim Ali Zardari had left the PPP in 1977 when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto refused him the ticket.

Both the father and son contested Zia’s 1985 non-party elections and lost badly. So much for their PPP credentials! Benazir accepted her father-in-law back in the PPP fold. Similarly, Zardari’s sister, Faryal Talpur, was made the Nazim of Nawabshah in 2001 and 2005. Her husband, Munawwar Talpur, who had served as an MPA under Ziaul Haq, also contested elections on the PPP ticket and by 2002, he had been promoted to a National Assembly seat when his brother Mir Anwar Talpur too was given a ticket, but he lost. Zardari’s elder sister, Dr Azra Fazl Pechooho, also became a PPP MNA in 2002 and 2007.

Accepting and adjusting to a gaggle of in-laws is the lot of most brides in our part of the world and Benazir understood this. But in her case, her husband also expected her to welcome into her midst and her party fold his personal friends. This was the dowry that Zardari brought to the marriage. Dr Zulfiqar Mirza, his buddy from school days, was made an MNA in 1993. His wife, Fehmida Mirza, inherited this seat in 1997 when he absconded from the courts at the time. She has retained the seat since and is now the first female speaker of the National Assembly, while her husband — no longer an absconder — has laid claim to the all powerful post of the Sindh home minister (hampered only by the MQM). The tension on the streets of Karachi intensifies each time he opens his mouth.

Agha Siraj Durrani, a Sindh Assembly parliamentarian in 1988, is now the local bodies minister in the provincial government and his rapid ascent through the ranks of the PPP is due to his ‘Yaari’ with Zardari and not because of his credentials or hard work as a PPP Jiyala.

The list does not end here: friend Pir Mazharul Haq is the Sindh education minister besides being the party’s parliamentary leader in the provincial assembly; his brother, Pir Mukarram’s wife Farzana Raja, an MNA, is heading the multi-billion rupee Benazir Income Support Programme. The woman has divorced her hubby but because he is out of the power loop, she is in — and rather too deep. Friend Islamuddin Sheikh is a senator and his son, Nauman Sheikh, an MNA.

Power is concentrated in this lot that is also inter-related through marriages. The Mirzas are related to Pir Mazharul Haq, who in turn is related to Farzana Raja, who controls the BISP. The Pirs in turn are related to the Jams — Sindh Minister Saifullah and his MPA brother — who are related to many more in power.

While Benazir was alive, these people were allowed into the PPP, but prevented from running amok. Onlookers often spoke about a tug of war between the Benazir and Zardari camps. Both “camps” have existed within the PPP, but in the words of Rudyard Kipling, never the twain shall meet. One recent occasion when matters came to a head was in 2007: Zardari wanted his brother-in-law, Munawwar, to be given a National Assembly seat (instead of a provincial assembly seat) and Munawwar’s brother, Mir Anwar, a provincial assembly ticket. Benazir heeded the first request and dug her heels in on the second; the ticket that Zardari had his eyes on for Mir Anwar went to Yousuf Talpur’s son Taimoor.

A furious Zardari made hysterical calls from New York, shouting at everyone and anyone who was foolhardy enough to have answered his phone. This may be the reason why he has not forgiven Yousuf Talpur, a PPP veteran, who now lives his life on the outskirts of the party power circle.

Because of such incidents, the cabal of Zardari’s friends and family felt that they were held back because of Benazir’s advisers and close associates. And now that they are in power, they are settling the scores. Benazir’s life-long associates are easy prey for Zardari’s wrath and vengeance.

Not even Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani dares messing with the president’s friends. But it is difficult to forget that these friends include the people who were not even allowed to enter Benazir’s house or office. She disliked many of them. Benazir once got angry when Fehmida entered her office in Naudero without permission, because “the woman gives me a headache.”

But new leaders, new times and new favourites; the way to make one’s way to the top in the PPP is now to please the Zardari group. This is evident in the increasing size of Zardari’s pictures in the PPP posters; in contrast, Benazir’s image is shrinking. Even Bilawal’s picture is making fewer appearances. Earlier, he was needed, as the transition from the Bhuttos to the Zardaris was taking place. At the time of Benazir’s death, Zardari took over the party as a reluctant co-chairperson and a question mark hung over his, a non-Bhutto’s, acceptability in an essentially dynastic party. So, the son-in-law rode to power on the coat tails of his son. A ‘Bhutto’ Bilawal was made the chairman to lend credibility to Zardari. But now, the latter has taken over the party lock, stock and barrel. He showed similar reluctance when he took over a section of the Prime Minister’s Secretariat in the early days of his marriage only to be later filled with the cronies like Javed Pasha and others.

No wonder then that the only way to go up and up in the PPP is to please Zardari. And an example of this is the great survivor, Jahangir Badr. It is widely known that at a party event, the PPP workers’ chanting “Charon Soobon Ki Zanjeer, Benazir, Benazir (Benazir is the linking chain among the four provinces)” was interrupted by Badr. He joined their chorus, replacing the name of Benazir with Zardari. And when someone pointed out to him that Zardari did not rhyme with ‘Zanjeer,’ he retorted: “Idiot, who cares about rhymes as long as it pleases the boss.” The rhymeless wonder is the party’s secretary-general now.

And herein lies the danger to the party. Benazir took 15 years to get herself accepted as a leader in her own right and not just the daughter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Zardari has branded the PPP as his own in a far shorter period of time and without taking any of the old guard along. He is the co-chairperson sans any power-sharing and collective decision-making. How this may have or will impact the party, only time and the next elections will tell. Indeed, the new PPP slogan — Ikk Zardari, Sub Par Bhari — can be interpreted both ways. But it appears Zardari is not interested in any further elections for himself and the party he leads.

To be continued

Published on: thenews

Date: April 12, 2010