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Today, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples’ Party is as good as dead

The PPP does not stand or reflect the values and dreams of its founder and is lead by an unimpressive Bilawal Bhutto Zardari

opinion Updated: Dec 03, 2017 20:05 IST
Chairman of Pakistan Peoples’ Party Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (File Photo)
Chairman of Pakistan Peoples’ Party Bilawal Bhutto Zardari (File Photo) (REUTERS)

Last week the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on November 30,1967, turned 50. It was an event that did not reflect the power and importance the party and its founder once held in Pakistan.

On any discussion on the PPP and Bhutto, I recall a small mutiny at a factory in Rawalpindi in 1974, triggered by the new rights that Bhutto had bestowed on workers. The entire staff rose against three top managers, locked them out of the premises and asked the owners to come for negotiations. They made my father their boss and eventually had the managers removed for their discriminatory and dictatorial behaviour. It was the beginning of a new era with all the socialist trappings, and it gave the people a sense of being someone.

The nationalisation and workers’ empowerment drive unlocked the floodgates to unquestioned trade unionism, most of whose leaders went haywire while exercising their right to assembly and association. It played havoc with productivity and with work ethics. Workers and trade union leaders largely abused the newly-bestowed freedoms – inspired by the socialist ideals that were in vogue in the then Soviet Union and in China.

Memories of that social transformation lie deep in the minds of all those who either directly or with this new-found sense of empowerment benefited from it. They all saw this as a dividend of their support for the PPP.

This bonanza for workers, nevertheless, came to a grinding halt in July 1977, when General Zia-ul-Haq, handpicked by Bhutto as an ostensibly docile officer to lead the army, staged a coup and eventually executed Bhutto in April 1979.

From then on, General Zia unleashed an unprecedented oppression to decimate the Bhutto legacy through the incarceration of the PPP’s founding leaders and ideological workers. General Zia, once described as the “general with the eyes of a cobra” by Der Spiegel, spared no effort in undoing what Bhutto had achieved — an enduring love in the mind of the common man for a leader who had given them a sense of empowerment, and ownership through an ill-planned nationalisation of large- and medium-scale industries across Pakistan.

Today, for most Pakistanis Bhutto’s legacy is as good as dead. What lives on is the name of Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto’s son – Bilawal Bhutto Zardari – an act derided by many Pakistanis because this runs contrary to the centuries-old tradition where the son carries only the father’s name.

Badly battered in the 2013 general elections, the PPP today lives under the shadows of Asif Ali Zardari, who once was informally referred to as ‘Mr10 per cent’. During his presidency, Zardari gave away some of his constitutional powers, but by virtue of being the party chairman he remained the real puppet master, simultaneously expanding his financial clout as well.

Zardari consciously cashed in his spouse’s surname, always initiating his speeches and statements with it. However, at no time during his presidency did Zardari institute a formal enquiry to investigate Benazir’s assassination.

“[Asif Ali] Zardari achieved in just five years what a dictator like General Zia-ul-Haq and his successors couldn’t do through their brutal repression of the PPP for nearly two decades,” says former PPP senator Enver Baig.

Ishaq Khan Khakwani, a politician who hosted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto several times in his ancestral house in Vehari, believes Benazir’s second tenure as prime minister (1993-1996) essentially marked the beginning of PPP’s degeneration into a typical status quo party – led by landed aristocracy and moneyed people. Besides elevating her husband as federal minister for investment in 1995, she also began vying for “contingency funds for future campaigns”.

Sherry Rehman, a vice president of the PPP, and a close associate of Benazir, feels that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s legacy is relevant to today’s Pakistan, where social inequalities and economic vulnerability define the lives of many Pakistanis. “His vision was quite transformative in that it spoke to big ideas that don’t go away: the attempt to level social pyramids, the emancipation of women, the building of Pakistan’s leadership on foreign policy fronts, the politics of hope for the bottom of the pyramid.”

Yet the reality on ground today hardly takes into account what Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir stood for. The party is in disarray, in public led by the unimpressive political novice Bilawal. He hardly connects with the common man. This is especially true with the youth in Pakistan, whose primary concern is a weak economy, and who care little for today’s shallow political rhetoric, or the thunderous revolutionary speeches of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

Imtiaz Gul is an author and heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Twitter: @vogul1960

The views expressed are personal