There is nothing sadder than seeing great ideas go bad. This is perhaps why witnessing the current state of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is so disappointing. Historically, there has not been a more potent political force in Pakistan than PPP. Not in terms of organisational ability, not in terms of ideological potency and certainly not in terms of vote bank.
But after the disastrous tenure at the helm from 2008 to 2013, aided by factors that were out of the leadership’s control to an extent, PPP has been reduced to a regional party.
For the longest time in Pakistan’s political web, the vote bank was divided between two sides: pro-PPP and anti-PPP. It was classic left versus right. As things stand currently, the biggest players in our political arena do not include PPP. The fact that PPP is still the official opposition in the parliament makes this even more surprising.
But once everything is evaluated on merit, there is no denying that a large chunk of the mess PPP finds itself in is its own creation. Yes, the military takeovers have hit PPP the hardest. Yes, there have been schemes to bring down a PPP government every time, but it would be naïve to claim that only external factors have ruined PPP. Internal factors have played an equal, if not more important, role in ruining PPP.
And this is where Bilawal Bhutto comes in.
Disgruntled members of the party have flown to meet Bilawal in London, in a move that makes cracks within the PPP’s armour even more visible. It was always understood that Asif Ali Zardari was never going to command the same respect in the party as his wife and father-in-law did, but now those differences are becoming more evident.
After bursting on to Pakistan’s political arena post 2013, Bilawal showed all the signs of being exactly the tonic PPP needed. He spoke passionately against the Taliban as others minced their words, he organised a massively successful festival in Sindh bringing back a much needed feel-good factor in depressing times, but most importantly, he made PPP relevant again and this time for all the right reasons. Fast forward a couple of years, and that step in PPP’s politics, that energy that Bilawal brought, it all appears to be a thing of the past. The opportunity to revitalise itself appears to be slipping out of PPP’s hands.
Being the country’s oldest political force, it is only understandable that traditional PPP loyalists and members of the old guard still command a fair bit of influence in a party now led by Asif Ali Zardari. Bilawal’s enthusiastic approach, which managed to step on a few toes in the process, has not fared well with everyone inside PPP. While it is imperative that brilliant minds such as Aitzaz Ahsan and Raza Rabbani remain central to the PPP’s plans, it is time for others, Zardari included, to take a back seat and let Bilawal take a more pivotal role.
Ever since Bilawal hit the headlines post 2013, interest in PPP among the youth has only increased. While it is unfair to claim that PPP has managed to attract the same youth following as Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the numbers remain impressive nevertheless. While PTI is on the way up as far as its political footprint goes, PPP unfortunately is not. That is why utilising the youth footprint has become so important.
It is no secret that by the time the next scheduled elections are held in 2018, Bilawal will be the face of PPP. The grandson of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and the son of Benazir Bhutto, Bilawal will be PPP’s most potent vote winner. For that to happen effectively, and if PPP wants to rebuild its tarnished legacy, Bilawal needs to be given more space to manoeuvre, not less. Yes, he will make mistakes; yes, he will tick people off, but that is what will make him grow as a politician.
They might not admit it, but deep down even the staunchest of PPP supporters know that the party will not be a serious contender at the 2018 elections. That will be dominated by PTI and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), but if PPP plays its cards right, then four years down the road in 2022, things could work in its favour. But for all of that to even have a remote chance of happening, Bilawal needs to be face of PPP. Not Zardari. Not anyone from the old guards.
Bilawal brings unparalleled political legacy with him – a legacy that no one in PML-N or PTI can boast of. That legacy and his youth can work well for PPP but there needs to be an acceptance within the party’s rank and file that the old guards either need to call it a day or take a back seat. Expecting the party to become a potent force with the same old people would be naïve.
This post originally appeared on The Express Tribune Blog on 22 February, 2015.