Beyond Zardari’s clarion call – Nasim Zehra

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The PDM’s ‘best hour’ is over. Asif Ali Zardari’s clarion call to Nawaz Sharif is loud and clear: return home to fight the political battle you want us to fight, be ready to go to jail along with us all.

The PPP co-chairperson has no intention of taking his party’s political battle to the streets, and certainly not to jail either. His call for Nawaz Sharif’s return was essentially a push-back to the PML-N’s insistence for resignations. Maryam Nawaz’s response to Zardari about guaranteeing her father’s security should he return, did evoke a Zardari-style apology but may not have cut any political ice.

For long, both within his party and outside, many have questioned why Nawaz Sharif hasn’t returned to Pakistan since he is evidently healthier and capable of travelling; that also includes Senator Ishaq Dar. Zardari’s open demand does make the political situation a tad bit, if not more, uncomfortable for the older Sharif. Had the pressures of crippling inflation and delivery issues not been so great, this PDM mess would have politically been the ‘best hour’ for the government.

Meanwhile, differences over how to proceed as a united opposition have sharply and abruptly surfaced between the two major alliance parties. These differences are serious and unbridgeable. Nevertheless, for now, despite Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s tantrum, the PDM leaders want to continue under the PDM banner. This was evident at the March 16 meeting. Despite Zardari’s rather hard talk directed at Nawaz Sharif and despite Fazlur Rehman’s show of extreme disappointment at the PPP’s opposition to resignations and despite the PML-N’s firmness on PDM resignations from the assemblies, the March 16 meeting ended with the announcement that the PPP has asked for time to revert to its CEC for a decision on the resignations. This is merely a way to buy time. No change in the PPP’s decision is likely. Zardari will not change his decision.

The PDM’s 175-days journey has seen its highs and lows. The alliance held impressive jalsas and showed rare unity in jointly unleashing verbal attacks on the government and the ‘selectors’. There was unprecedented bonhomie; we saw the support Maryam Nawaz got after the horrible break-in into her room in Karachi. Yet there were ‘lows’ too: the much trumpeted long march delay from December till now, the resignations delay, the Pakistan charter announced for the Lahore jalsa never came, the final ‘showdown’ at Lahore never came; the numbers in Lahore were below expectation.

There is a basic difference between the approach adopted by Zardari, who essentially defines the PPP’s political strategy, and Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz. There are also some common strands in their thinking but those exist on a superficial level. These trends cover a generalised approach against the government in power. So the two parties were clearly supportive of each other during the earlier phase of the PDM, which focused on the broader determination of the alliance which really was about attacking the government in power and to some extent being critical of the establishment.

In the earlier phase, the goals of both the parties was to bring maximum pressure on the government and indirectly on the establishment as well. The purpose was very clear: both parties were looking to the establishment as an interlocutor, and to engage it for greater space for their own politics and for the leadership of the two parties which are involved in NAB cases. To put pressure, both parties made a show of being partners and opted for impressive combined street power.

In the 175-days long cooperation under the PDM flag, both the PPP and the PML-N actually gained political mileage; the PPP’s advice not to boycott either any by-elections or the Senate elections also helped. The PDM actually agreed on fielding joint candidates in most by-elections and in the Senate as well. Some complaints notwithstanding, the parties generally gained through this approach – with the PPP’s key candidate in the Senate, Yousuf Raza Gilani, defeating the government’s key candidate, the current finance minister, in the hotly contested Senate elections. The PMNL-N, JUI, PPP and some other PDM parties also gained in the by-elections. However, this is where the common approach ends.

The PPP approach is and has been crystal clear. They will fight their political battle while staying within the system: ‘we will fight in parliament not from the mountains’ was apparently Zardari’s refrain at the March 16 PDM meeting. This amply spells out what his future plans are for the PPP, and this is actually where he has guided the PDM to since it was set up.

While remaining within the system, the other aspect of the PPP’s politics is to engage and not battle the establishment. This, by all reliable accounts, is what the PPP leadership has been doing over the last few months. Bilawal Bhutto was quick to take up the matter of the PML-N ‘taking names’, disagreeing with this approach publicly. He had urged that institutions should be respected, calling out officials by name must be avoided, while indeed complaining to ‘selectors’ regarding rigged elections. Like his father, Bilawal walked two paths: some confrontation but steering away from open war and instead remaining engaged with powerful quarters.

The PPP wants to retain its political strength and executive authority in Sindh. It has to rebuild its party and find support and base beyond Sindh. Battling the country’s powerful is neither a politically wise nor viable approach in Pakistan’s politics. Matters here are too complex and compromised all around. Zardari fully understands that.

This is in sharp contrast to what Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz have opted for. Their battle is no-holds-barred. It is time for them to review what brand of politics will serve their party, their supporters and – above all – Pakistan. And indeed what brand will work too: all institutions absolutely within their domains – but politicians wise, credible and competent too.