Resurrecting the PPP in south Punjab

Ayesha Siddiqa

SHAFAQNA (Shia International News Association)

Bilawal Bhutto’s visit to Multan got many people excited about the future of the Pakistan People’s Party. It was a moving sight to see old women welcoming Benazir Bhutto’s son with such love. However, this is too early to determine whether the party will come back to life, especially in south Punjab where it supposedly had a lot of traction, at least before the 2013 elections.

The older generation, particularly the women that were there that day, must have been moved by the memory of Bilawal’s late mother who had tremendous capacity to connect with the people. This is not just about politics but the human touch. Also, a number of those present that day were indebted due to benefits of the Benazir Income Support Programme. Those that came from flood-affected areas also expected financial and other assistance. Not to mention the fact that the gathering was in former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s constituency, who has both personal and party following. Even Mr Gilani’s political opponents appreciate him for the unprecedented development work in Multan.

However, a day in Multan may not be sufficient to capture the challenges that lie ahead. It is a fact that over years the PPP and Yousaf Raza Gilani’s support base has shifted from urban to rural areas in Multan. While urban areas in south Punjab, like the rest of Punjab, respond better to ideology and party politics, rural areas operate better on the basis of power groupings. Since a large segment of south Punjab is still rural, the PPP could hope to get back into action by re-building its power network. But the problem with such coalitions is that they respond to parties which appear to be in better favour with the permanent establishment. The potential partners smell it in the air as to who is more likely to win and thus make their choices. This is one of the reasons that the PPP lost in south Punjab in 2013.

Here is, however, an additional challenge for the party. Although the potential coalition partners that are the big landowners and other groups continue to wield influence, people are not likely to vote for anyone who does not deliver. There is something basic which has changed in the last four to five years. Talk to people in backward districts like Dera Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur and you can get the sense that the big names do not have an easy ride at all. We hate to give credit to people but they do make active choices. The PPP had partly suffered in south Punjab because of their lacklustre performance and the popular perception that its politicians had delivered less than what they devoured in terms of public funds.

A PPP getting ready to contest in south Punjab will find out that the next elections will be a contest between itself and the PTI, and not the PML-N. Be it the role of the media or publicity against the ruling party, the fact is that they have lost the initiative in a lot of regions, including south Punjab. A Metro Bus or a road in Multan may not do the job.

But this is also where the challenge lies for young Bilawal of finding a message that attracts people back to the PPP. In his recorded message to people from this sub-region, he talked about the loot and plunder of takht Lahore, probably forgetting that the ruling coalition from central Punjab may also have carried the burden of financial mismanagement of the last five years of the PPP government as well. People might not have forgotten that. Furthermore, we may politically disagree with Imran Khan’s tactics and find him over-ambitious, but it is also a fact that he has totally raised the expectations of people vis-à-vis the state and political leadership. Some of the ordinary people may disagree with Imran’s idea of forcing out a government, however, there is lesser disagreement with what Imran is saying. The sound of accountability and facilitating public not the elite is something that rings a bell in people’s mind. Bilawal’s message and speech that day lacked a purpose. It was based on emotions but no signs of how could he offer people more than what Imran has already done.

Bilawal Bhutto has to use magic which means say something that gives ordinary people hope, especially the youth. One of the cards he could use in case of south Punjab pertains to the issue of a new province. In fact, many of the women standing there for him that day were calling for a ‘Seraiki’ province. He did mention south Punjab which many consider not the same as ‘Seraiki suba’. This is because the new poor in south Punjab are Seraiki who need attention.

Let’s put aside nomenclature for a minute, the party’s main hope in the region lies in actively pursuing the idea, which may not get support from the strong north and central Punjabi influence in his party. When Farooq Laghari, then with the PPP, had raised the issue of south Punjab province in Benazir Bhutto’s first term as prime minister, the idea met with a lot of opposition from within. Benazir Bhutto was one of the few people who supported the idea. In doing so she had visibly walked away from her own father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s compromise with the Punjabi establishment on the issue of restoring Bahawalpur province in the 1970s, which at that time symbolised a call for Seraiki identity. The last PPP government did raise the issue again but now Bilawal and his party will have to take a clearer position on the issue, especially when the Sindh faction of his party may be equally scared of the idea of a new province.

Pakistan is undergoing change. People are restless and prone to militancy. Unless the PPP can demonstrate its capacity to utter and fulfil a new vision and not just constantly harp on sacrifices, it has little to gain. From religious militants to political militants, there are a lot of new brokers to capture people’s imagination.

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