By Amir Mateen
ISLAMABAD: The PPP, which survived the worst of three dictatorships, is ironically crumbling down in a democracy. Its leaders and workers withstood a lot over four decades: the hanging of its founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; long imprisonments of its top leadership and workers; physical torture; the killing of Shahnawaz and Murtaza Bhutto under dubious circumstances ó and, of course, the ultimate trauma of Benazir’s assassination.
The party could resist and survive all this because of its love for the magic personality of Benazir and its organisational strength. There were multiple tiers of local, divisional, provincial and national leadership, not to forget the troublesome international wings. Let a bunch of Pakistanis gather in any city of the world and a PPP chapter would be launched.
Dictator Ziaul Haq’s biggest headache was that any corner of the world that he travelled to, he would find a dirty dozen of the PPP workers, hot on his heels, shouting slogans and protesting his appearance. Another dictator, Pervez Musharraf, was equally haunted by such placard-holding ‘Jiyalas’. And the internal bickering in, say, the Bradford chapter, was always as intense as it was in the party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC).
The PPP is more a way of life than a party. It is a political organisation, which has adopted the local popular culture as its own. Its ritualism and symbolism are distinct; where else would you find a whole band of ‘Darvesh’ wearing the PPP’s tri-coloured flag and dancing to the tune of a Dhol? The PPP rallies were known more for the popular characters in the audience than for the speeches delivered by its leaders.
Take Majha, an atheist Jiyala from Lahore, who on the day Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was executed, looked up to the sky, pointed a finger at it and said in chaste Lahori: “I told you not to let them hang him; now, I will never say your prayers again.” Hence, Majha – the atheist. The Jiyalas have the tri-coloured tattoos, rings, scarves, clothes; one had ‘PPP’ carved on his chest with a knife. They are a quintessentially emotional, rowdy and a non-conformist lot. A cult, so to say.
Benazir turned this raw PPP energy into structures and forms. It took her over 30 years to devise a system in which she could cut across all tiers and communicate with the workers at the lowest rung. She was informed about the minutest details; she knew the PPP office-bearers in every Tehsil, their electoral history, and even about their wives and children. A charismatic leader, she left an impact on those she led and all the workers who had met her had a story to tell. The stories of what she ate, wore or said to, say, Sitara Baji in Denmark to Hassan Akhtari’s mother in Sahiwal.
Benazir stayed in touch, sharing joys and sorrows by sending birthday cards, wedding gifts, condolence messages and, the prized trophy, her signed photographs. She called party leaders at all levels personally, sent them emails and SMS messages, sometimes hundreds a day. When the workload became heavy, she became more selective about sending the replies herself, but for all intents and purposes, everyone thought she was the one responding.
She was very particular about the party structures at the district, divisional, provincial and national level. She may have worked through a kitchen cabinet, but she also gave a general sense of participation to the office-bearers at every level. And while she realised that the elected members were the face of the party for a certain section of society, she knew the provincial and district leadership was very important. She tried to maintain a balance between the two, but when needed, she tilted towards the latter. She ensured that the various party wings — women, labour, youth — and the committees on, say, foreign policy remained functional and effective. Benazir turned the party’s organisation into a well-run machine that survived the times, especially the bad ones. And herein lay the PPP’s strength.
That colossus of party organisation is now crumbling from within. Asif Ali Zardari has not even bothered to learn about the functioning of the party and its organisation, let alone doing something to retain or improve it. The two people who knew the system the most, Safdar Abbasi and Nahid Khan, have been banished from the party. The organisation has been thrown into absolute disarray. The provincial, divisional and district tiers stand alienated from the top leadership. While they could communicate their concerns and problems to Benazir, they have no access to Zardari in his bunker. Even elected members do not get the chance to meet him for months. He meets large groups occasionally but fleetingly. Asif Zardari opted to go to the Presidency instead of looking after Benazirís party, largely because he needed the immunity from criminal prosecution for the misdeeds of his haunted past.
Worse still is the fact that Zardari has left the party to his younger sister Faryal Talpur, who is generally addressed as the Baji, a title earlier reserved for Nahid. The new Baji, who had never practised politics outside Nawabshah during Benazirís life, now runs the biggest and the most important party of Pakistan, even though technically she only heads the PPPís women and youth wings. She chairs the meetings with the provincial and district leadership. The new Mantra is that: If you know Baji, you have the key to the PPP inner circles.
Old-timers sulk because Bajiís image is being built up to match Benazirís. She has been given Benazirís Larkana seat; she lives in her Naudero House; she has been declared the guardian of her children. PPP workers in Larkana, the Bhuttosí hometown, are upset to see posters in which Bajiís image is sometimes bigger than that of Benazir. But the problem is that Baji is no Benazir. She was a simple housewife, specialised in making the Sindhi Biryani, before Benazir made her the Nazim of Nawabshah. Faryal may miss party functions but makes sure she attends the weddings of real estate tycoons.
The partyís organisation is in a shambles. The CEC meetings were known for its intense debates as Benazir allowed everybody to speak their mind and rather boldly. Not any longer, as Zardari has inducted his favourites like Zulfiqar Mirza and his wife Fehmida, Pir Mazharul Haq, Manzoor Wassan, Qazi Sultan, Farooq Naik to the committee; the meeting is called rather late in the evening at about 9 pm; lavish food is served; the meeting starts at 10 pm and barely lasts for two hours. The only people maintaining the earlier tradition of speaking their minds are Aitzaz Ahsan, Safdar Abbasi, Yousuf Talpur and Raza Rabbani.
It is worse in the provinces. The Punjab PPP is clearly divided between the camps of Provincial President Rana Aftab and Senior Minister Raja Riaz ó the Rana camp is tilted towards Governor Salman Taseer while the Raja is siding with Shahbaz Sharif. All the Punjab office-bearers, except for the president, are from Lahore, including Secretary General Samillah Khan, Secretary Finance Aurangzeb Burki, Deputy Secretary General Usman Salim and Information Secretary Dr Fakhruddin. Zardariís man in the Punjab is Governor Taseer, a person who was in the Musharrafís Cabinet the day Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. He is trying to run the party from the Governorís House.
In Sindh, Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah is the provincial PPP president only on papers. The party is actually controlled by Zardariís friends—Zulfiqar Mirza, Pir Mazharul Haq and Agha Siraj Durrani. Cricket crazy Taj Haider is the secretary general, but he is more a showpiece without any real powers.
To be continued
April 13, 2010