Benazir and successors

Ashaar Rehman SIX years ago on this day, Mian Nawaz Sharif stood in a shocked General Hospital in Rawalpindi consoling workers of a po...

Ashaar Rehman
SIX years ago on this day, Mian Nawaz Sharif stood in a shocked General Hospital in Rawalpindi consoling workers of a political party he had fought against all along, promising them justice and continuity.

Benazir Bhutto was not just any political leader. She was our investment which we had banked on for so long, taking risks and experiencing setbacks along the way. In her death we suddenly, or ceremoniously, realised the true worth of the sum she now represented and looked for her successors.

The country, or a large visible, influential part of it, cried out that Nawaz was what we were left with after the brutal snatching away of Ms Bhutto on Dec 27, 2007. We had only him, the second long-term bond, that the poor us had placed our hopes in. The remaining half, the only remaining half, of the treasure map was all we had to continue forward with our journey to safety and stability.

The election following the assassination was won by the PPP, with some areas in the country appearing to have voted out of sympathy. Ms Bhutto’s party was in power, bearing the legacy of the compromise she had been forced to strike with a somewhat milder model of a military dictator just before her death.

The PPP now had the government, but Nawaz clearly had momentum by his side — momentum not just in the traditional sense where he would assume the role of a government-in-waiting as soon as his rival, Ms Bhutto, came to power. According to many, he now had the popular mantle of Ms Bhutto in his advance against the set-up headed by her spouse, the never so popular Asif Ali Zardari.

Over the last six years, Mian Nawaz Sharif has represented the only hope for a large number of Pakistanis after Benazir, but he has never been compelled to practise the popular politics in the style and manner of Ms Bhutto. Everyone knew, including perhaps Ms Bhutto herself, that the days of the populism that sustained her party through the 1980s and 1990s were over.

The Pakistan of the 21st century was a country transformed. The rich-poor divide, the rural-urban tensions largely in Punjab, had long served the PPP’s interest. These had been blurred under Gen Pervez Musharraf’s supervision. It was feared the PPP was left to operate in the areas where the rural clash with the urban was still visible and relevant. And this is how it turned out to be over the next few years, manifested most sharply in the party’s reduction into a regional, Sindh party in the 2013 election.

Nawaz Sharif, the ‘brother’ who had arguably succeeded Benazir as the politician Pakistanis had patiently waited for to mature and deliver in the meanwhile chose his popular moments with care, but in the changed times he had no compulsion to acquire the idiom and lay claim to the political content of his predecessor. That idiom was lost, which he left the intra-PPP heirs of Ms Bhutto to scour for after the PPP’s latest experiment in power came to an end in 2013.

Nawaz Sharif has taken his time recalling Bulleh Shah’s verse that puts man before his choice of the worship place. As he uses the famous lines by the Sufi to mark the latest Christmas he does it with the confidence of an indulgent soul who knows that it is but a brief spiritual excursion to suit a passing moment. He understands, he has always understood, that soon he is going to return to mind the store, his true required vocation in the public eye.

The party on the other side, the self-avowed beneficiary of the investment that the people had made in Benazir, is still caught up in the misty surroundings of the shrine it hangs on to. The PPP’s current leaders, the future of the party and the country, are uncannily reminiscent of the past custodians of the shrine as they spruce up and face up to the shopkeepers more aware and conversant with the language of the bazaar.

As per tradition, the PPP is looking for victims. In the workers who are going to be laid off as a result of privatisation which most believe cannot be delayed any more. In politicians such as Yousuf Raza Gilani who it now is desperate to portray as martyrs. That is an old strategy which brought the PPP success in the past. Only, the people today are far too hard-pressed to worry about their own lives and far more demanding of their rulers.

Today they vote for those more likely to deliver and not simply for those who can do no more than project themselves as deserving on the basis of their sacrifices and victimhood.

Six years since her death Benazir Bhutto continues to act as the measure to gauge the popularity of her party. But, quite sadly for those who yearn for a more practical, relevant antithesis against the all-encompassing model, her memory is invoked rarely on the publicity posters the aspirants of the local government elections have installed on the street poles.

In large parts where it acted as the other choice, her party’s flag has been overtaken by the green and red of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf in the build-up to a contest against the PML-N. The PPP’s presence is estimated by the number of caravans the party was and was not able to send to Garhi Khuda Bakhsh to mark the sixth anniversary of Ms Bhutto’s passing. That signifies little more than ritual.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

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