Pakistan Peoples Party: the Bhutto family heirloom

By Mayank Chhaya

Now that the exultant and gushing tributes on Benazir Bhutto’s martyrdom for the cause of democracy are subsiding, let’s subject the world to some reality check. As we do so, let’s be as poker faced as possible. For, democracy is but a great idea in Pakistan’s feudal politics. There is no real danger of it becoming a reality there just yet. After all, it has only been 60 years since Mohammad Ali Jinnah founded the country.

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Bhutto, “chairperson for life” of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), actually left behind a will naming her husband Asif Ali Zardari as her successor. Bhutto left the will in the event that the remaining members of the PPP developed some genuine taste for democracy and elected a real non-Bhutto successor after internal elections. As a fig leaf of legitimacy, Zardari named Makhdoom Amin Fahim as co-chairman of the party. Together they then unveiled the true face of democracy in appointing Bilawal, the 19-year-old son of Zardari and Bhutto, as the head of the party.

The PPP is a great political asset that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto bequeathed to his daughter who in turn passed it on to her teenaged son. And unless Pakistan’s violent ways intervene, Bilawal Bhutto will presumably have a long innings as “chairman for life”. It is all so brazen and no one has the time or sense to ask about the underlying contradiction in the late Benazir Bhutto’s untiring claims of bringing democracy to Pakistan on the one hand and keeping the party as a family heirloom on the other.

Even if one disregards the obvious question about a teenager’s qualification to lead Pakistan’s main opposition party, one is still left with the larger and more troubling question about the kind of democracy that the country can hope for.

Consider the choices before the people of Pakistan: a military dictator (Pervez Musharraf), a discredited politician (Zardari or Nawaz Sharif) or a callow 19-year-old (Bilawal). Suddenly Pervez Musharraf may not seem like a terrible idea. That is the irony of the way Pakistan has gone about creating its polity – a military dictator who came to power in a coup seems like the best option. The benchmark for democracy is so low.

Of course, it is entirely possible that like his mother, who also started very young, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari would learn the tricks of the trade quickly. That is precisely the point – they are the tricks of the trade, and tricks are by their very nature shortlived. In a normal, healthy democracy with a long history the rise of a teenager might have signalled a progressive move. But in Pakistan it is nothing more than a cynical ploy to retain the ownership of a political apparatus by those who stand to benefit from it directly.

Zardari has announced his party’s intention to participate in the elections. Quickly taking a cue from it, Sharif too has now decided to take part. At some level, it is a good sign that elections will be held with the full participation of the two main political parties. However, as we all know, democracy is much more than self-serving electoral politics. Merely because Bilawal has been anointed a successor without a single voice of dissent does not mean that democracy is striking roots in Pakistan. In fact, the manner of his appointment is a clear sign that the country has learned nothing from its volatile history.

Quite like India’s Congress party, where the Nehru/Gandhi family has ruled the best part of the last 60 years, the PPP too remained a Bhutto fiefdom. At least India has had a long and impressive history of having built a genuine political culture, which acts as a bulwark against a single family’s dominance. In Pakistan, no such political culture exists. Cricket superstar-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaaf is but a tentative attempt at providing a reasonable alternative. It is anybody’s guess whether it can acquire the kind of traction so necessary to take Pakistan toward a genuine political democracy.

(Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago-based writer and commentator. He can be reached at [email protected])