Jan 8, 2010

Ethnically federal?

Basil Nabi Malik

The kind of political jokes making the rounds are usually a good way to gauge the latent sentiments and general perceptions about varying entities and figures in the political arena. For example, of late, I have been devilishly asked: what would one call a party which is all-inclusive because officially it is open to all, but secretly only for a specific group of people? On unwittingly referring to a "party" of a different sort, I was crudely told with a huge grin that the answer was the Pakistan People's Party.

And although this may seem innocent, and perhaps even amusing, the honest truth is that such jokes indicate the kind of atmosphere prevalent in Pakistan, and more importantly, a general perception of the politics of the PPP as it is constituted today under the leadership of Asif Ali Zardari.

In the recent past, there have been statements by various PPP leaders which would even make PPP supporters uncomfortable. Some lower-tier PPP leaders are on record as saying that Zardari is being targeted because he is Sindhi and, as such, the PPP and Sindh would no longer sacrifice the blood of their sons and daughters in the struggle to establish a democratic Pakistan.

In addition to this, shockingly, some of these lower-tier leaders, such as Raja Riaz, are also reported to have said that this time bodies would not be sent to Sindh but, rather, to Punjab. Raja Riaz is also on record as saying that if Asif Ali Zardari is removed through a "judicial murder," as he believes could be the case, the country would break up. Not to be undone by the likes of these political titans, Zulfiqar Mirza has jumped into the controversy with a bang, saying that the PPP had been determined and ready to break Pakistan, and it was Asif Ali Zardari who persuaded them to raise the slogan "Pakistan Khappay," and save the country. And to top it all, the co-chairman of the PPP is himself on record as having said that forces opposing the party would rue the day when those Sindhi children chanting "Jiye Bhutto" slogans start chanting "other" slogans.

Now, one isn't sure whether such statements are in fact a policy of affirming the PPP's position as a regional party with support in the other provinces, or an ill-thought-out move which would unfortunately establish as much. Taking statements with the PPP emphatically asserting itself as a federal party on face-value, one can give them the benefit of the doubt in presenting the PPP as such. In doing so, the only explanation for the PPP's recent tirades would be that being cornered by those players wanting to topple the party, the PPP has started playing the Sindh card to save its seats without in fact realising the possible adverse consequences that it could bring.

Undoubtedly, at this moment in history, the PPP has roots in all four provinces as well as Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir. However, it is perhaps not as fundamentally strong and entrenched as the PPP would like to believe. This can be amply seen when one looks at the various election results over the years.

In Punjab, the vote bank of the PPP has been seen to be steadily decreasing, from an impressive 42 percent of the total votes in the 1970 national elections to a percentage hovering in the initial 20s according to the data of all elections that took place in Pakistan on or before 2002. A similar trend can be seen in the NWFP, where the PML-N is seen to be gaining ground and cutting into the PPP vote bank. When it comes to Balochistan, the province has predominantly been a constituency for the Muslim League and the regional parties as a whole.

The PPP's weakness in Balochistan can be better deciphered from the fact that the party was only able to establish a provincial government in the province due to the support of the PML-Q and other regional parties, which in fact were in a much better position to form a government than the PPP. That said, it cannot be discounted that the PPP made a somewhat better showing in the 2008 elections in various provinces. However, it clearly stands as an anomaly when compared to the general pattern emerging in the national election data delineating the party's performance over the years.

It could very well be that the out-of-the-ordinary performance was a result the sympathy votes in the wake of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. However, only the results of the next elections will shed some light on this issue. The PPP has a certain degree of popularity in all the provinces, the popularity is not as robust as the party would want it to be.

Ethnically motivated statements will do nothing other than hastening the bracketing of the PPP as a regional party. Rather than try to invoke a Sindh card, or any other card, for that matter, the PPP should consider strengthening its position in all the provinces, so as for it never to need to manipulate ethnic identities to save its hide when facing charges of corruption and incompetence.

And there may very well be an argument that the PPP leadership never intended or desired that such unwanted consequences result. But the fact remains that such a perception may take root and crystallise into an average person perceiving the PPP leadership of yesteryear as diehard Pakistanis who happened to be proud Sindhis, in contrast to the "new" PPP leadership which is composed of diehard Sindhis who happen to be Pakistanis. The consequences of such a perception for a federal party with such a great history are quite evident.

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