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 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 chairman of the Public Accounts Committee during her first tenure. Hakim Ali Zardari had left the PPP in 1977 when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto refused him the ticket.
Both 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 Nazim of Nawabshah in 2001 and 2005. Her husband Munawar Talpur, who had served as an MPA under Ziaul Haq, also contested elections on 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. Asif’s elder sister, Dr Azra 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. Zulfiqar Mirza, his buddy from school days, was made an MNA in 1993. His wife Fehmida 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 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 there: friend Pir Mazharul Haq is Sindh Education Minister besides being the party’s parliamentary leader in the 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 who 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 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 PPP but prevented from running amuck. 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, the twain never met. One recent occasion when matters came to a head was in 2007; Zardari wanted his brother-in-law Munawar to be given a National Assembly seat (instead of a provincial assembly one) and Munawar’s brother, Mir Anwer, a provincial assembly ticket. Benazir heeded the first request and dug in her heels on the second; the ticket that Zardari had his eyes on for Mir Anwar went to Yousaf 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 that he has not forgiven Yousaf Talpur, a PPP veteran, who now lives life on the outskirts of the party power circle.
Because of such incidents, the cabal of Zardari’s friends and family felt they were held back because of Benazir’s advisors and close associates. And now that they are in power, they are settling scores. Benazir’s life-long associates are easy prey for Zardari’s wrath and vengeance.
Not even Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani can dare mess with the president’s friends. But it is difficult to forget that these friends include 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 without permission in Naudero because “the woman gives me 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 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, Asif 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 PM 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 great survivor Jahangir Badr. It is widely known that at a party event, PPP workers chanting “charon soobon ki zanjir, Benazir, Benazir (Benazir is the linking chain among four provinces)” were 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 secretary general now.
And herein lies the danger to the party. Benazir took 15 years to make herself accepted as a leader in her own right and not just her father’s daughter. Zardari has branded the PPP as his 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 parr 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)
April 12, 2010