THE spectacle of Sharjeel Memon — a former provincial minister accused of siphoning billions of rupees — being presented a gold crown by his supporters on his return home, two years after leaving the country, was utterly disgusting. He was eulogised for what his party men described as his “services for the people”. Out on protective bail, the minister declared the corruption cases against him to be “political victimisation” and vowed to fight for justice.
This event, last month, exemplified the face of today’s PPP, where corruption and incompetence is accepted as the new ‘normal’. Instead of being ostracised, people like Sharjeel Memon are cheered. Ironically, many of them adorned the stage at the party rally on the April 4 anniversary of PPP founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s execution, an event that changed the country’s political landscape forever.
See: Remembering Bhutto
The PPP today is not even a relic of the party that Bhutto tried to build, a party for the poor and the oppressed. Bhutto may not have been able to fulfil his avowed ideal, but his legacy has lived on. His daughter Benazir Bhutto took that legacy forward. Despite many flaws, the party never lost touch with the masses. It was not just the Bhutto charisma, but its progressive ethos that so deeply entrenched the PPP in the hearts and minds of the people.
But what we are witnessing today is shameful. Bhutto’s name is being sold to serve the vested interests of the keepers of the shrine. It has turned into a business enterprise where political power is a means to serve the interests of a few. The PPP under Asif Ali Zardari has lost its founding ideals. From Bhutto to Zardari, it has been a long and tragic story of the once the most powerful political force in the country falling into decay.
Once the most powerful political force in the country, PPP has now fallen into decay.
People who remember Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter can see the vast difference between them and Zardari. It has been almost four decades since Bhutto, the country’s first elected leader, was hanged by a military ruler, but he is still remembered for mobilising the people and inspiring them to stand up for their rights. Even his worst critics acknowledge Bhutto’s contribution to rebuilding a truncated country and making it a formidable force.
One of the most tragic consequences of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has been the ascendency of Zardari at the helm of the party and the country. His five-year term as president is often described as the worst ever in terms of governance. Political wheeling and dealing became the new mantra that systematically isolated the PPP from its mass base. The humiliation suffered by the party in the 2013 elections did not come as a surprise to even the most ardent party supporters. Nine years of misrule in Sindh, the stronghold of the party, is living testimony of a party in decline. Allegations of corruption have become the hallmark of Zardari’s new PPP.
Thus, it is not surprising to see the likes of Sharjeel Memon climbing up the party ladder and being rewarded for their alleged misdeeds. However, he was not the only Sindh minister to apparently flee the country when the federal law-enforcement agencies started corruption investigations against senior provincial officials.
Among them was also Owais Muzaffar, better known as Tappi, a close associate of Asif Ali Zardari who was once considered even more powerful than the chief minister of Sindh. He too has several corruption cases pending against him. Tappi and several senior government officials are yet to return home and face the charges against them. But who knows, they too may come back soon to a ‘hero’s welcome’.
Interestingly, Sharjeel has returned amidst speculations of the PPP having struck some kind of deal, but it is not clear with whom. The rumour mill was already working overtime with the recent release of former federal minister for religious affairs Hamid Saeed Kazmi. He was acquitted by the Islamabad High Court after he had already served several years in prison on corruption charges.
More recently, the Sindh High Court finally granted bail to Dr Asim Hussain, another close associate of Zardari. Interestingly, the same high court had rejected Dr Asim’s bail applications several times since he was arrested 19 months ago on a number of criminal charges, varying from terror financing to depriving the national exchequer of billions of rupees during his term as federal minister.
Zardari himself is back in the country with a renewed confidence, kicking off what many describe as pre-poll campaigning in Punjab. Just a few months ago, the Rangers raided the offices of his closest aide and business partner and claimed to have recovered a large cache of arms. The individual had, however, left the country some time ago and is still believed to be running the show from the safety of the United Arab Emirates.
Things seem to have quietened down since then. The Rangers are no more pursuing ‘corrupt officials’. The paramilitary agency had surely overextended its mandate, and many of the charges may not be proven in a court of law. But does that clear all those accused of misdeeds? Over the past nine years, the party’s political fortunes may have declined, but Zardari’s business empire has certainly flourished.
Another new normal is that the party is being run through remote control from Dubai, which has virtually become Zardari’s first home and where he spends most of his time. The Sindh chief minister and senior party leaders have to make frequent trips to the Gulf state to get instructions from the boss.
The launching of Bilawal was also a political gimmick by Zardari, largely to use Bhutto’s name. But he is cautious not to give his son a long leash. With the country soon entering election year, he is back in the country and once again sidelining his son. He has vowed to win the next elections. Perhaps no one in the party takes the claim seriously. Bhutto’s party is dead, and it is hard to resuscitate it with Zardari at the helm.
The writer is an author and journalist.