PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari is returning home tomorrow after an 18-month long self-exile. He had left Karachi in June of last year after making his unforgettable ‘tumhari eent say eent baja dengay (will destroy you) … you are here for three years and we will always be here” speech aimed, we all know, at whom. The timing therefore is interesting.
The three years are up, and he is still here. But given his leadership style and refusal to cede control even to his heir-apparent, the ‘we’ may not be there for long, either.
After five years of the Zardari rule, marked by incompetence and corruption, the PPP once a dominant political force all across the country has been reduced to a provincial entity. Yet no lessons have been learnt. Governance in Sindh – the only province under PPP rule now – rather than serving the people continues to be regarded as a means for self-enrichment schemes and rewarding cronies and political allies with similar gifts in the name of trademark Zardari policy of ‘conciliation’- a euphemism for business deal making . Consequently Karachi, the nation’s commercial capital, had become a playground of target killers, land grabbers, extortionists, kidnappers, and terrorists until the Rangers had to be handed policing powers to restore law and order. That led to an unsavoury confrontation as the Rangers controlling authority insisted there was a nexus between the terrorists and criminality and corruption, provoking the famous tirade and departure which left Bilawal Bhutto Zardari holding the fort.
Zardari still was the boss. He presided over the party and the province’s affairs from his Dubai palace, as usual giving undue favours to friends regardless of rules and regulations and punishing those who dared to stand in the way. The latest example being that of the Sindh Inspector General of Police, A. D. Khowaja, who has been sent on forced leave after just 9 months in office because he took a number of actions that did not sit well with the PPP supremo, such as the recruitment of 20,000 constables on the basis of merit; and suspension of a recalcitrant officer, and upon reinstatement by the government, his refusal to assign the officer in question a posting of his choice. What seems to have proved the proverbial last straw on the camel’s back is IGP Khowaja’s refusal, according to press reports, to accept the illegal demands of people close to the ruling party on several matters, including harassment of sugarcane growers. He has been hastily ordered out to make way for a pliable replacement. Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah is said to have liked the IGP for his good work but felt compelled, after a meeting with the party leader in Dubai, to summon the officer to the CM House to tell him his services were no longer required. The issue has generated a lot of heat given that whilst a provincial government has the prerogative to appoint a police chief of its choice, it has no right to remove him/her prematurely. The case only goes on to show so far as the Sindh government is concerned, rules and laws count for nothing.
If the dejected second tier leaders and the rank and file of PPP, especially in Punjab, saw a new hope of revival under Bilawal, he has poured a lot of cold water on that hope. He is not ready to cut the apron strings. While announcing Zardari’s return at a press conference just three days before the December 27 deadline for the acceptance of his four demands of the government failing which he has threatened to launch a protest campaign, said Bilawal “if Asif Zardari is with us, we would be able to get our demands accepted by the federal government soon.” Clearly, there is no doubt about that who is the party boss, and what he is capable of doing. The master deal maker he is, he could yet cut another deal with the government in its hour of crisis, leaving those in the party calling for an aggressive policy wringing their hands in desperation. Bilawal is completely out of touch with reality, too. At a recent party meeting in Lahore, he claimed the PPP would win the next elections; and that he would be the prime minister and father Zardari the president. What the source of this optimism might be is an enigma. His middle name -added belatedly as a political selling point- won’t fetch him votes for what matters at election time is performance. More to the point, the last name is synonymous with misrule and unsavoury deal-making.
With his one-trick policy of reconciliation Zardari has repeatedly confirmed he is incapable of learning anything from experience or to come up with a new trick. Whether he is in the country or out of it (he is scheduled to go back on December 30 to one of his various luxury residences abroad) that makes no difference. He will still be running the party affairs. And Bilawal has amply demonstrated he has no intention to distance himself from his father’s brand of politics. In other words, the Chairman and the co-chairman are at one in protecting and promoting their own interests. Since the leadership is unwilling to change its ways those in it, especially its Punjab leadership which has been urging a strong, genuine opposition role for the party, could be thinking of changing affiliations to stay relevant in politics. After the party boss’ 18-month long absence their party is still here but well on its way of becoming, in much of the country, a distant memory of the times it had a popular following for championing the rights of the dispossessed sections of society.