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PM from Sindh on the cards

Makhdoom Amin Faheem was named a possible choice by Benazir’s widower Asif Ali Zardari immediately after her assassination. But there are indications lately of a rethink on his candidature, reports Vinod Sharma.

world Updated: Feb 21, 2008 23:00 IST
Vinod Sharma
Vinod Sharma
Hindustan Times

The winners of Election 2008 in Pakistan are still some distance away from forging a coalition or a national government. But a broad consensus exists on putting a leader from Sindh in the prime minister’s office in deference to Benazir Bhutto’s martyrdom, that saw her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) ride a sympathy wave in the southern province to emerge as the single largest party in the national assembly.

Makhdoom Amin Faheem was named a possible choice by Benazir’s widower Asif Ali Zardari immediately after her assassination. But there are indications lately of a rethink on his candidature. A feudal lord and peer (spiritual head) of Halla Sharif, near Hyderabad, Faheem had his slain leader’s ear during her exile from the country.

He was also the interface between Benazir and Pervez Musharraf until her return to Pakistan following a “deal” with the President — at the core of which was the national reconciliation ordinance (NRO) providing immunity to her and Zardari in a slew of corruption cases.

Elected from Matihari in Sindh, Fahim, a former federal minister, is a flexible, mild-mannered politician with a temperament that matches the PPP’s carefully nuanced position on the judiciary’s independence, or the demand for an end to Musharraf’s presidency. But there is no inner party consensus yet on his candidature. He could also prove a weak stakeholder in the power troika of the President, the PM and the army chief.

Zardari has ruled himself out as PM and so has Aitzaz Ahsan, the PPP veteran who leads the lawyers’ movement against Musharraf. Ahsan was categorical in a TV interview that neither he nor Zardari were in the race. “But the next PM should be from Sindh,” said the lawyer-politician who hails from Lahore. There is nevertheless a body of opinion that with his understanding of the legal-constitutional issues, Ahsan will be a more independent player in the power triumvirate than Fahim.

Zardari established contact with Aitzaz in the aftermath of the polls. The former interior minister also has a good working equation with PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif, whose brief he held in a Supreme Court case for his return from exile.

In the course of the poll campaign, another PPP name in circulation for the PM’s slot was that of Aftab Shabaan Mirani, a former federal minister under Benazir and Sindh chief minister under her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. His shock defeat at the hustings has eliminated him from the race.

Whoever the next PM may be, he will be propped up the way Sonia Gandhi pushed Manmohan Singh’s candidature in 2004. Recognizing the sub-continental parallel, PPP spokesperson Sherry Rehman had introduced Zardari as “Mr Sonia Gandhi” when he became the party’s co-chairman after Benazir’s assassination.

But the comparison ends here. Unlike Sonia’s undisputed position in the Congress, Zardari lacks the unqualified support of PPP cadres who are drawn only to the Bhutto name. At Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh, this writer met skeptics galore with greater faith in Bilawal Bhutto and his cousin Fatima, the daughter of Benazir’s brother Murtaza known for her unsparing cerebral combat with Wadi Bua Benazir, while the latter was alive.

Yaseen, for instance, is a PPP jiyala who hasn’t left the scene of the fatal bomb attack on his “sister” Benazir some two months ago. Known as dulha mian for his claim of being “wedded” to the party, he sports a shalwar kameez stitched out of the PPP standard. “I don’t like Zardari. It’ll be good if Bilawal and Fatima jointly lead the party,” he said openly.