The evolution of Pakistan People’s Party has been a fascinating case study of national politics. Its core ideology matches its raison d‘etre: power belongs to the people.
The genesis of this ideology was the backdrop of the struggle to fight the country’s first military dictatorship and translate this rising political consciousness into a movement for self-rule. The success of this spectacular early project helps contrast the PPP with the ideology, or rather the lack of one, at the early stages of evolution of its key foes — the PML-N and PTI.
In many ways, the Pakistan People’s Party is the country’s original political standard-bearer, setting several key benchmarks of goals, form and function that other major parties that came after it have oft imitated but not even come close to matching.
And this despite PPP’s mostly less-than-ideal dispensation, flawed evolution and inability to translate its core promises into concrete outcomes.
This year marks the PPP’s 50 years of foundation and the milestone comes with many key lessons. Its founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — arguably the most charismatic politician Pakistan has produced post-Jinnah — was the first standard-bearer for the embodiment of ideals of leadership, including having a broader inclusive vision, effortless communication and connection with a diverse populace and electorates, negotiating powers to push forward agendas and an unceasing hunger for action and stamina to match.
The only persons who have come close to enjoying somewhat similar popular political and national appeal have been Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan but have never quite matched Bhutto, perhaps for the fact that in going to the gallows for his ideals when he could have begged for mercy and walked free has made him politically immortal.
However, it is the oft-shifting stances and performance on key issues in Pakistan’s treacherous political landscape that define PPP’s legacy — the contrast between the real and the realpolitik. Save PTI and MQM, Pakistan’s major political parties are characterised by their dynastic leaderships. Since PPP was the first of the major indigenous political parties established for electoral politics (the first national elections on the basis of adult franchise was held nearly a quarter century after the country was created), to it falls the dubious distinction of founding dynastic politics in Pakistan.
A key universal benchmark for political parties in good democracies is periodic and democratic change of guard in house. Pakistan fares poorly on this count — PPP more so since it put forth the original inheritance template although Bhutto can’t be blamed for it because his tragic hanging by a dictator forced a radical change in the political playbook and thrust a young Benazir in the saddle. That was forgivable but perhaps what is not is the failure of the party to learn a lesson and evolve a leadership succession system that could have prevented a repeat in 2007 when Benazir was heartlessly assassinated. If she did not envision her husband or son succeeding her why did she not develop a democratic succession policy?
But where does the PPP stand on the base of realpolitik in Pakistan — dealing with the harsh reality of military dominance of the polity and the ability to negotiate the civil-military equation to a critical mass of functionality? PPP cultivates an astonishing historical flexibility on how to privately exercise and publicly position itself on this count.
The hanging of Bhutto and the murder of Benazir are demonstrations of PPP’s inflexibility with the unceasing political fight over who owns Pakistan and who gets to shape and represent its ideals and aspirations. PPP’s leaders have died for it and faced treason and debilitating, unproven corruption cases and its workers have suffered severely in this battle. But the party has never shied away from employing pragmatism to ensure the civ-mil framework never degenerates into a zero-sum game.
The party’s relationship with the military over the decades is instructive. Before establishing the party, Bhutto happily served at the pleasure of the country’s first military ruler, General Ayub Khan, and did not shy away from collaborating with the second, General Yahya Khan, to deny power to Mujeebur Rehman of Awami League, the victor of the country’s first elections. He also willingly helped the military restore its honour soiled by the partition of Pakistan in 1971, the surrender to India and capture of one-third of its soldiers by Delhi — the same military that then hanged him and replaced his socialism with Islam and crushed his party.
Benazir carried in the same vein — courageously struggling against the third military dictator, Ziaul Haq, fighting his protégés such as Sharif, and political machinations inside and outside parliament managed by Hamid Gul, Asad Durrani and others of their ilk during the 1990s and even beyond during the rule of the fourth military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf.
However, like her father before her and like her biggest political foe, Nawaz Sharif, she did not refrain from striking compromises with the military to stay in power. She had to surrender key ministries and accommodate the military’s appointees in her first government. She was happy to lend a hand to the same military in overthrowing Sharif to stage a comeback for her second term. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, similarly compromised with the military to complete the first full term in office for a party.
And yet it is the same PPP that founded three political instruments that allow not just its own political survival but the relevancy of democracy itself and the prevention of the Egyptisation of Pakistan where the military is perpetually in direct power.
These include (i) the 1973 Constitution that provided a template for representational parliamentary democracy that endures to this day despite serious attempts to undo it; (ii) the Charter of Democracy — an astonishing template for the country’s democracy project that outlines a playbook for democratic actors that has not been allowed to become part of the Constitution by the military and which has allowed, as envisioned, now two parties to complete their full mandated tenures; (iii) the Eighteenth Amendment, which decentralised powers among the provinces and negotiated more resources for them so that the military’s ability to cannibalise these resources from the Centre is blunted.
No wonder, this political vision and maturity has allowed PPP to win five of Pakistan’s 10 elections (two each by Bhutto and Benazir and one by Zardari). In that sense, the PPP has managed the civ-mil equation better than any other political player.
Where PPP falls consistently short is the issues of enforcing fundamental rights of people in the margins. It can never live down the ignominy of proving to be more Islamic than the Islamic and sectarian parties (despite its secular credentials) by legalising the power of the state to define some people’s faith and defile their followers and condemn them to lives of fear, contempt, discrimination and violence.
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It also falls short in its proclamations of equal rights for non-Muslim communities under its own domain. Sindh has the largest numbers of Hindus in Pakistan. After decades of activism, PPP finally brought bills to prevent forced conversions of Hindu girls and registration of Hindu marriages in 2016 but under pressure from a handful of Islamists in a province where it has full power it withdrew one bill (on conversion) and has refused to operationalise the other (on marriages) even though it has been passed.
This is hypocritical given the fact that Bilawal Bhutto rightly had no hesitation joining Diwali celebrations the same year. This month, the PPP shamelessly joined the bid to successfully thwart an attempt by Islamists in the parliament to bring a new federal law to ban under-age marriage of girls, saying Islam allowed this to happen.
That, then, is the paradox of PPP — fighting giants for 50 years but giving in to pygmies always; struggling for democracy in the country but shunning it in-house; fighting to save its prime minister in the Supreme Court ousted under flimsy charges but joining the lackeys of the Establishment in the court to keep another prime minister permanently disqualified; defending the parliament but violating its own Charter of Democracy.
In the meanwhile, this public duality has meant more and more voters have over the past few years come to believe in the ‘bad PPP’ and, thereby, confusingly shunned the ‘good PPP.’