Mission Punjab | Khalid Bhatti

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The PPP has launched its third campaign to retake lost ground in Punjab. Unfortunately, the first two campaigns failed to bring the desired results. The PPP hasn’t been able to regain the electoral support it lost since the 2013 general elections. The crisis is much more serious and severe in central and northern Punjab compared to southern Punjab.

The party was hoping to make a comeback in the 2018 general elections but the disastrous results in Punjab further demoralised the party cadre. The party got the lowest ever popular votes.

PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has launched this campaign from southern Punjab to gain some ground, addressing several public meetings and rallies in different districts of southern Punjab. The reason for pinning hopes in this region is the fact that the PPP hasn’t lost support and ground in southern Punjab as compared to central and northern Punjab.

The party’s support in southern Punjab was reflected in the results of the 2018 general elections when the PPP won five National Assembly seats from there. Some PPP candidates including former PM Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani lost their seats with narrow margins. Not a single seat was won from central Punjab and just one from northern Punjab.

If the PPP leadership wishes to lead a coalition government in the centre, then it needs minimum 40-50 seats from Punjab. The party needs at least 25 seats from southern Punjab and a minimum of 15-20 seats from central and northern Punjab. That is the real challenge before the PPP leadership. This means the party not only needs powerful candidates (so-called electables) but also popular support to do so.

There are some electables who can win elections without the support of any party. But they are just a handful. For them, the blessing of influential powers is enough to win in a constituency. Most electables not only need the support of the powers that be but also a reasonable party vote bank. That is why each time they choose a party most likely to win power. The most influential candidates belonging to the traditional feudal families in southern Punjab will join the party when they will be confident that it can help win the constituency.

The PPP is still facing an uphill task in recovering its lost political and electoral space and support in Punjab. Once a mighty political force in the province, the PPP’s current standing is not even a shadow of its past glory.

Punjab was a stronghold of the PPP, even after Z A Bhutto was hanged and after 11 years of a ruthless and brutal military dictatorship which went after the party with its mighty state power.

The Zia dictatorship failed to crush the party despite unleashing a reign of terror. When an election was called in 1988 on a party basis, the PPP – led by Shaheed Benazir Bhutto – was the most popular party in the country. The powers that be were forced to create the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), an alliance of rightwing pro-establishment parties to compete with the PPP. Even then, that alliance was not enough to stop the PPP from winning a clear majority in the National Assembly and in Punjab. So as the last option, the 1988 elections were tampered with.

The party can regain some of its lost glory and support with a popular narrative, radical slogans and pro-people progressive agenda and programme. The party needs serious soul searching in Punjab to draw up an effective election strategy.

The PPP needs radical slogans, a pro-people agenda and programme, and a clear progressive and secular narrative if it is to make a comeback in Punjab. The party needs to revert to its original socialist ideas and radical programmes to win back the support of its poor and working-class voters.

The biggest challenge for the PPP leadership is to attract the youth of Punjab and to make inroads into the middle class. The generation that formed the party and then resisted against the Zia dictatorship has burnt out. Many leaders and activists of that generation either have departed this world or become too old to carry out political activity.

The PPP was once the party of the working class, the poor, young and the progressive layers of the middle class in Punjab. The radical leftwing and progressive middle intellectuals, political leaders and activists alongside students, workers and peasants played a decisive role in making the PPP the most popular party of working people and the poor.

The weakening of students, labour and peasant movements and the domination of rightwing ideas among the middle class politically weakened the party. The establishment and rightwing forces also played their role.

It is true that the PPP is going through the most serious crisis of its history, but the party could still make a comeback in Punjab if it focuses on winning over the young. The PPP needs a combination of active organisation, radical politics and popular leadership.

The party was once considered a force against the status quo, and the voice of the working and exploited classes. It believed in freedom of thought, equality, economic and social justice, the redistribution of wealth, and social progressivism. The progressive face of the party needs to be restored.

The PPP needs to return to its basic principles and thoughts and develop its programme and manifesto on the basis of these guiding principles: “Islam is our faith, democracy is our politics; socialism is our economy and all power to the people.”