By Arif Nizami
Two mammoth rallies were held in the last few days. One at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore where Tehrik-e-Minhaj-ul-Quran chief Allama Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri stirred a hornet’s nest by demanding that the military and the judiciary be made stakeholders in the formation of a caretaker setup, a la Bangladesh.
The other massive rally in Naudero – held to observe Benazir Bhutto’s fifth death anniversary – too was a special occasion. It was the launching of 24-year-old scion of the Bhutto family, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
Bilawal’s maiden speech in chaste Urdu punctuated by couplets from Faiz was reminiscent of his late mother and grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Both used to mix up their genders. So did he. Bilawal’s debut brought tears in the eyes of his proud father as well as his aunt Sanam present on the stage.
Obviously the speech was well rehearsed and well choreographed. But credit goes to the young Bilawal to pass his first test in flying colours. In substance, it was an attempt to resurrect the sagging spirit of the normally indomitable jiyalas.
His late mother felled by the Taliban and his grandfather and maternal uncles a victim of state terrorism, it was no surprise Bilawal came down hard against terrorism and terrorists. He made the right noises to stir the crowd while narrating the recent assassination of the ANP stalwart Bashir Bilour and the cowardly attack on Malala Yousafzai.
The standout factor: His lament against terrorism was far more forthright and strident than most of his uncles in the Peoples Party dare. And that is why he sounded credible.
Like his father last year at the same venue, Bilawal singled out the higher judiciary for having double standards and on being partial against the PPP. Albeit without naming them, he came down hard on the Sharifs as well.
The criticism of the Sharifs sounded a trifle ill-timed in the sense that both parties are locked in serious back channel negotiations for formation of a caretaker setup composed of political persons.
Unsurprisingly, the PPP’s Central Executive Committee has decided that Bilawal as party chairman would lead the party’s election campaign. Defending the unsavoury governance record of the coalition government led by his party will be a tall order for the still inexperienced Bilawal.
Despite his father’s tutelage and innate Bhutto political and combative instincts, Bilawal’s task is still cut out for him for he will have to raise the sagging morale of the party in the main battleground: the Punjab.
The PPP in the largest province of the country is leaderless and in disarray. Manzoor Wattoo inducted recently as the provincial president has failed to inspire the party cadre. He is simply not acceptable to the party’s rank and file. The manner in which Benazir Bhutto sacked him in 1995 is still etched in their memory.
Hoping that the PML-N and the PTI would cancel each other out at the polls in Central and Northern Punjab, helping it to pick up some seats, the PPP has retreated to the South where it is being assumed that the slogan of the Seraiki province will resurrect its flagging fortunes in the province.
Till recently demoralised and sidelined, former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has been rehabilitated. On his insistence, his cousin Makhdoom Ahmad Mahmud has been plucked from the PML-Functional and inducted as the governor of the province.
By his own admission the Makhdoom claims to be a quintessential Muslim Leaguer. Having neither the propensity nor the inclination, he can do pretty little to provide the PPP the kind of boost it requires to make a fist of it at this late stage.
Wattoo and the Chaudharys of Gujrat are no longer the sole handlers and fixers in Punjab. Hence the mantle will fall on Bilawal and his father to repair things in the province. With less than three months to go before the general elections, it will be a tough ask.
Ironically at this crucial juncture, Qadri has emerged as the spoiler. He has denied that the establishment has launched him. However, his timing stinks. After four years in Canada to escape the wrath of the Taliban, and by his own admission having a Canadian passport, he emerges from the deadwood to lecture the nation on how to do its politics!
With the exception of the PTI and the MQM, virtually all political parties and rump of the media have opposed his agenda to make the military and the judiciary stakeholders in the formation of a caretaker government.
The MQM participated in his rally but has not entirely endorsed his agenda. The PTI chief Imran Khan is an exception. He has welcomed the Sufi cleric’s proposals claiming that Qadri has endorsed PTI’s stance on various issues. Reportedly, the Khan gave a dressing down to his Information Secretary Shafquat Mehmood for criticising Qadri in the media.
Nonetheless even Imran cannot afford to endorse Qadri’s plan to postpone elections in the name of cleaning the Augean stables. It will be tantamount to endorsing the repeat of Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s stratagem for self-perpetuation, “accountability before elections”.
In reality it was a successful attempt by Zia and his cohorts to bolster the rightist forces by first getting rid of the ousted Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and subsequently holding elections. Despite being discredited by Zia’s propaganda machine, Bhutto was poised to win the elections to be held in 1977. Those elections were not held for eleven years.
Ironically, in the present context, the ostensible purpose of Qadri’s lament is to get certain politicians from the PML-N and the PPP disqualified before elections are held. Reportedly, Nawaz Sharif – a major beneficiary of Zia’s benevolence but now a red rag for the establishment – is on top of the list.
Some elements considered close to the establishment have likened Qadri’s planned long march on 14 January to the Arab Spring. This would mean that Qadri by his dharna, a la Egypt’s al Tahrir Square, would force his favourite stakeholders – the judiciary and the military – to intervene and oust the government, setting up a caretaker setup to replace it.
Obviously it is a blatant attempt to blackball certain players both from the PPP and the PML-N, and have a ‘cooling off’ period for a few years under a military backed “caretaker government”. It will be clear from the kind of backing Qadri gets for his planned long march whether he has any takers.
Imran Khan may see it as a window of opportunity to enter the arena from the backdoor despite the promise of his ‘”tsunami”. But judging by the groundswell of support he claims in his rallies, he need not back mavericks like Qadri. Political forces in the country, including the MQM and the PTI, should be closing ranks to strengthen the system so that the elections are held at the appointed time.
This is the immediate challenge for master Bilawal, his father and the Sharifs. There is plenty of time for both parties to run down each other once basic issues have been settled.
The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today
This piece appeared in Pakistan Today on December 29,2012
- PPP ‘agrees’ on Justice Nasir as caretaker prime minister (nation.com.pk)
- PML-N demands early polls announcement to counter conspiracies (dawn.com)
- We want justice from courts: Bilawal Bhutto (nation.com.pk)
- Peoples uncles (dawn.com)
- Bilawal renews pledge to continue Bhutto’s’ mission: Kaira (sananews.net)