PPP Co-Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is spearheading the party’s 2018 election campaign, which marks the transition of the party from the Zardari era, choosing the partys Foundation Day Conference in Lahore to make it clear that the Zardari era is over.
The PPP was founded in Lahore, which should be reason enough for Bilawal to celebrate the 49th Anniversary there, but there is also a solid political reason to do so. Punjab was to emerge as one of the strongholds of the PPP in the 1971 election, and this was already visible when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto founded his party. However, Bilawal now needs to regain support in the Punjab, which has become a stronghold for Mian Nawaz Sharif and his PML-N, and where the main challenge to him is now the Pakistan Tehrik Insaf of Imran Khan. This is symbolised by the PTI holding the office of Leader of the Opposition in the Punjab Assembly, the first time the PPP been in Opposition and not held this office. It holds the office in the National Assembly only because of its sweep of rural Sindh.
The dominance of the PML-N in Punjab is shown not so much by its control of the federal government, as of the Punjab government, which it has won in all but one of the seven elections held since 1985. Even in the exception, in 1993, the PPP could not obtain the Chief Ministership, and had to cede it to its ally, the PML-J, even though it had the majority of ministries. One of the twists of history has been that the one of the two PML-J chief ministers still alive, Mian Manzoor Wattoo, entered the PPP, serving in the 2008-2013 federal Cabinet, but also as its Punjab President. It is perhaps a symbol of the generational change that Wattoo was replaced by Bilawal with Qamar Zaman Kaira, who was a Cabinet colleague. Wattoo is an old friend of the senior Zardaris rather than of Bilawals. However, Kairas replacement of Wattoo does not represent a generational change, as does that of Sindh CM Qaim Ali Shah by Murad Ali Shah. Kaira may well be younger than Wattoo, but neither is Wattoo as old as Qaim Ali Shah, nor Kaira as young as Murad Ali Shah. Wattoo may share with Shah a common beginning in local government politics, but whereas Shah started off as Chairman of a district board just after Partition, Wattoo started in 1962, as a union council chairman in the Ayub era.
Bilawal has come to Punjab at a time when the PPP faces the problem of its leader, Asif Zardari, being in Dubai. Zardaris return to Pakistan is promised, but his staying abroad symbolizes his dilemma. In Pakistan, he fears arrest; abroad, his control of the party is not as strong as that exerted by his late wife, Benazir Bhutto, in her last years. Still, Bilawals emergence seems to be a fulfilment of the PPPs minus-one formula, which had been demanded by PTI chief Imran Khan.
He had been speaking mainly about the MQMs problems with supremo Altaf Hussain, and just as the MQM Pakistan was supposed to be an MQM minus-Altaf, similarly the PPP minus-Zardari would be acceptable. It should be noted that both Altaf and Zardari were disliked in certain circles always, but the dislike increased when the latter attacked the Army, and the former Pakistan itself. Imran is politically opposed to both, competing with the MQM for political space within Karachi and other urban areas of Sindh, and with the PPP as the main alternative to the PML-N in the Punjab.
Crucially, the PTI has established itself as the party to beat in the Punjab. The crunch will come at election time, when the PPP will suddenly find itself without viable ticket holders in many constituencies. Even in 2013, it found itself coming third in too many constituencies. The PPP ticket is no longer the guarantee of success it once was. Bilawal will have his work cut out to reverse this trend. Bilawal himself owes his position to the PTI, for if his father had managed to win re-election, there would have been no need to bring forth Bilawal. The PTI appeals to the youth vote, and even though Imran Khan himself is going to be 63 in December, he is seen as a young man, perhaps a hangover of his cricketing days, And of his unmarried status. It is perhaps no coincidence that Bilawal addressed the question of his marriage before he came to Lahore, thus bringing into the public space a question perhaps natural for any 28-year-old bachelor, but which had been left so far as a private matter.
However, the PTI has not impacted Bilawal just on coming into politics. It has also impacted his politics. While there is only a fiction that Bilawal wants to join the PTI, there is no doubt that he wants the PPP to become more like the PTI. The PPP jumped onto the socialist bandwagon when it was founded, but has now abandoned socialism accept as an unwelcome piece of lumber it cannot get rid of. However, without this baggage, the PTI also appeals to those of a progressive inclination. The PTI has the great advantage of not being the PPP, and thus appeals to all those who like its progressivism, but not its baggage. It is thus no wonder that Bilawal is attacking Nawaz on the Panamagate issue, though he is maintaining a careful silence on the issue of dynastic politics.
Bilawal cannot find much solace across the border. The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is a generation older, and though Congress has been paralleled by the PPP, there has been slippage. Though Bhutto corresponded in functional terms with Jawaharlal Nehru, chronologically, he mirrored Jawaharlals daughter Indira Gandhi. And though Benazir was PM at the same time as Indiras son Rajiv, she corresponded more to her. Thus while Bilawal apparently has more in common with Rahul Gandhi, he corresponds more closely to his father Rajiv. Neither example is very instructive, though admittedly Rajivs being cut off by a Sri Lankan suicide bomber prevented him from being in politics even today.
Bilawal wishes to come into the field in the 2018 poll. If elected PM, he will break his mothers record for the youngest Pakistani PM. If he is not, he might find his party threatened with increasing irrelevance as electables and voters alike try to find winners. However, it should not be forgotten that the PPP is now definitely in the third generation, and Bilawal is likely to be on the political landscape for several decades to come. There will be many challenges and upheavals in them, but his ability to face off the one at present will determine how he handles them.
Bilawals emergence seems to be a fulfilment of the PPPs minus-one formula, which had been demanded by PTI chief Imran Khan.