The PPP, after the government failed to heed its chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s four demands, decided to hold a series of processions as part of its drive to revive the fortunes of the party in its lost stronghold of Punjab.
The four demands were: revival of the parliamentary committee on national security, acceptance of the PPP’s bill on the Panama Papers, appointment of a foreign minister, and implementation of an All-Party Conference resolution on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. For the first manifestation of this mobilisational strategy, Bilawal led a rally from Lahore to Faisalabad on January 20. But the reception in Faisalabad proved a pale shadow of the past in what was once a PPP fortress.
The loyal but disgruntled PPP workers who turned out to greet and listen to their young leader had their own take on the affairs of the party. The message they conveyed to Bilawal was that there was a pressing need to reinvent the party as worker-friendly, otherwise its revival in Punjab will remain just a dream. Others pointed to how the arrogance of the party leaders had annoyed the workers. Differences among the leaders and the defection to other parties of some of those leaders had further disheartened the workers.
Until 2008, the PPP won just about every constituency in Faisalabad. But in the 2013 elections, the party suffered a humiliating defeat in a sign of the changed times. That downturn (as in Punjab generally) is the legacy of the previous Punjab PPP leadership (and by extrapolation the central leadership of the party). Bilawal tried to reassure the workers that their apprehensions would be removed. He seemed aware of their low morale. Armed with this knowledge, he embarked on interviews of the local leaders for party offices. In his speech to the rally, Bilawal admitted that being the opposition in Punjab was not an easy job. The PPP in Punjab has been described as a ‘friendly’ opposition.
To add to its woes, the party faces a PML-N in power in the province whose hold seems unassailable at present. This strength is owed in no small measure to the culture of patronage that defines the PML-N style of politics, apart from its deep roots in the business community and the bazaar. It is the PTI of Imran Khan that through its confrontational tactics has positioned itself in the public imagination as the party that is far ahead in second place than the PPP. The PPP hopes to establish itself as the main opposition in Punjab and pick up a few seats in the process. That implies that its main rival and real target at present is the PTI rather than the ruling party. But this is still a tall mountain to climb.
Over the past five years or so, the PPP seems to have steadily lost hope of recapturing its former stronghold in southern Punjab, while at the same time it became increasingly irrelevant in the rest of the province.
The PPP’s foray into Punjab under the leadership of Bilawal seems to have a dual purpose: ramp up pressure on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over the Panama case and re-establish the party as a force to be reckoned with, with an eye on the 2018 elections. But to have any chance of getting anywhere near these goalposts, the PPP has to return to the drawing board.
The four demands around which the present drive is centred are unlikely to rouse its demoralised workers, let alone the people of Punjab generally. The demands may have their own importance, but they are not about to set off any conflagration in Punjab since they have little relevance to ordinary people’s lives and problems. Symbolism and the constant references to the martyrdom of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto do not seem any longer to be a sufficient condition for the revival of the party in its erstwhile Punjab stronghold.
On the one hand, there is an argument that the PPP currently should be focusing on rebuilding its grassroots organisation rather than showpiece rallies.
And, without the kind of left of centre political programme that defined the original élan of the party, it may find it difficult to demarcate itself from the rest of the political pack.
Last but not least, the PPP government in Sindh needs to improve its governance performance to give its Punjab section a reasonable chance of making a dent. -Business Recorder