The PPP is undoubtedly the most successful political dynasty and electoral franchise in Pakistan. Its success was built upon a popular political slogan ‘roti kapra aur makaan’ – its social contract for the Pakistan of 1970s. However, over time, most Pakistanis developed an understanding of what their party leaders are doing – or not doing.
This new reality has made the old slogan redundant. Many Pakistanis who were instinctively attracted to the party by its famous slogan certainly did not have access to the three basic commodities then and definitely do not today.
The PPP franchise is now branded a feudal or ‘wadera party’ and a part of the rich. These two power bases call the shots. Its ideologically motivated jiyalas have no voice in the party except when called upon to raise slogans at rallies. The occasional MNA from a humble background serves merely as window dressing. However, change is in the air. The youth is highly politically aware. This ‘youth quake’ – ‘informed and armed with a vote’ now has the potential to make and break political fortunes.
A May 2013 Gallup survey indicates that despite Imran Khan’s popularity among the youth, it was the PML-N that captured the majority youth vote while the PPP lagged a poor third. The conversion of the youth vote by the PML-N and their subsequent outright win of the 2013 elections was in part the result of many successfully delivered youth-focused welfare programmes. These were launched via the Punjab government platform in the PML-N’s control then and now.
Even though the PPP similarly controlled Sindh on both sides of the elections, a dearth of vision and lack of institutional capacity to do front-line public works cost the party dearly at the national level. On the back of the PPP’s poor performance in Sindh, other parties have made significant inroads into rural Sindh. The next elections could spell disaster if the PPP’s Sindh ministers do not step up.
As patron-in-chief of the PPP, Bilawal has the responsibility and the power to make a difference: he can change the public’s perception of the PPP. Bilawal must transform the PPP’s brand from that of a party for rich landed aristocrats to one for common Pakistanis.
To implement this grand plan, he will have to take a principled stand against many bigwigs among his own party to institute a change in culture. He must be the loudest voice and the biggest obstacle against corruption, nepotism, inefficiency and dereliction of duties by ministers and legislators. From the top Central Executive Committee down to the ward level he must ensure all party officials have a clear understanding of the party’s expectations and deliverables required of them – all of which should be focused on making the PPP once again relevant to the electorate.
Bilawal has the potential to engage voters, especially the younger lot. However, he will have to work hard to realise this potential on a personal and political level. It is the less glamorous but vitally important areas – such as the PPP’s vision for strategy and policy development, focus on delivering front-line public services, unifying urban and rural populations, improving the quality and capacity of PPP’s Sindh governance, accountability and performance assessment of its ministers and legislators, communicating and connecting directly with voters across the spectrum – that require his urgent personal attention.
Bilawal should not forget that just as party leaders before him were ultimately answerable to the ‘common man’ so must he be. In order to establish his credentials he must move away from issuing statement on matters over which his party has no or little control. Instead he should focus on the levers of powers within the party’s control which it can exercise to improve the lives of ordinary Pakistanis and particularly, at least for the moment, in Sindh.
In the new political environment constituents admire leaders who roll up their sleeves, get things done and are seen to be part of the public. This new reality rejects everything of the past and is inherently against the way politics is conducted by dynasties and landed aristocracy. Bilawal can start by changing the narrative of the party and by providing a new social contract that promises education, justice and health for all. A narrative supported by substantial project work in each of the above areas to show to his party and potential voters that he is a man of substance rather than mere pronouncements.
This new narrative and action plan will help create a bond between Bilawal and the people of Pakistan. People will view him from a changed perspective – one of relevance and change for the good. It will help his party make up for the recent electoral losses and unify urban and rural Sindh under his leadership – an important need in Pakistan’s troubled times.
As a young man Bilawal has the luxury of a life yet to unwrap before him. As a political leader he must act now to establish his credentials and cultivate a reputation as a hardworking politician capable of delivering results. This will stand him in good stead when life’s ups and downs deliver their inevitable knocks.
Bilawal must start work on the new social contract immediately. ‘Education, Education, Education’, to take a leaf out of Tony Blair’s book, should be Bilawal’s initial defining mantra. He could identify 100 government schools and 50 colleges across Sindh which are performing poorly. Exam results, buildings and environment, teachers’ and students’ attitude are all good indicators of which institutes need the most help. Working groups could be established to be tasked with assessing and providing specific suggestions for improving and supporting the institutions under their study.
In order to maintain transparency and independence, all assessments must be publicly discussed and debated to ensure that the most relevant and efficient plans are approved as road maps for each institution. The collective output of this programme, at a later stage, can be used as a guidance paper to improve the overall public education system of the province.
In the next stage the focus should be the establishment of better institutions and strengthening of communities. Similarly, tried and tested change management strategies must be implemented to address problems in the health and justice sectors. The initial focus however must be on education. If there is one thing Pakistanis want, it is good education for their children. They are no different in this respect from the Americans, the Brits or the citizens of any other country.
Bialwal needs to establish his credentials before he contests elections. He should use the next few years until the elections in 2018 to undertake solid public project work and establish his personal creditability in and out of the party and develop a track record of political achievements.
It is easy to see then that the public and political programmes Bilawal delivers between now and the 2018 elections will in the long run support his claim to be a genuine leader. Only then will he be accepted as an inheritor who has earned his status rather than just accepted it. His mother endured a very difficult political journey to the top. No wonder Hillary Clinton admitted in her memoirs that Benazir Bhutto was the only celebrity the Clintons ever stood behind a rope line to see.
Bilawal’s journey for political legitimacy may be different but he needs to embark on it urgently. He must establish himself as master of his own destiny, remember his mother’s conduct and above all not betray the hope and trust of the ordinary people of Pakistan.