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And out comes the president

Publication Date : 18-09-2012


A Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) landed in Lahore last week. Over the last four years, the city has braved terrorism and epidemics, breakdowns and more breakdowns. It is synonymous with protests — by anyone you name.

It has been the site of a constant, one-man official show. It is where a party with 100 seats in the provincial assembly and a government in Islamabad has been forced to find refuge in a sprawling but increasingly out-of-sync house on the Mall occupied by a couple of contrasting governors one after the other.

A new, "third" party rose almost from oblivion here, and here the habitually militant defenders of Pakistan have roared from stage uninhibited.

Each one of these developments — and there were many more — was worthy of an intervention by the leader of the country’s "biggest" political party.

A few of these could well have invited the personal interest of the head of state.

President Asif Zardari however has been seen to be watching it all from the hilltop. He has promised much and generated a lot of suspense about his potential, but has been unable to grant as much as a rare audience to the real people caught between his Pakistan and his party.

Just as the concerns for his security have been genuine, the costs of his no-show here have been extremely high.

It came as a bit of a surprise when he finally overcame security fears to arrive by the side of a man injured in last week’s factory fire in the city. He now intends to visit more often, as part of his party’s plans for the next general election, and says he will launch his election campaign with a rally in Punjab.

If he has risked appearing at public places here, an election may actually be approaching.

His past overtures indicate that Zardari sees a bit of a Lahori in himself. Invariably, his express messages to the zinda dilan — delivered in accented Punjabi with accompanied accentuated swagger, seemed to have been informed by a standard understanding of the local happy-go-lucky stereotype.

But having a long time ago volunteered to fill the glaring absence of a resourceful and capable Pakistan People's Party (PPP) stalwart based in the Punjab capital, he never got down to earnestly filling this vacuum.

By the time Zardari was imprisoned in the presidency four years ago, the gap had been allowed to grow so big it was taken as a sign of him conceding defeat to his political opponents.

His politics of reconciliation may have ultimately been inspired by the needs of his government at the centre, but in the context of a heavyweight party’s blow-for-blow fight out in the streets, the policy left the jiyala in Punjab considerably weakened.

Whatever the reasons behind his absence, Zardari has taken a long time to renew his love affair with Lahore. He must now face a stern test before he gets serious notice.

The president pledges, as he always must, that his PPP will be all too happy to give Punjab its next chief minister. But before the unlikely happens, a few serious misgivings may be done away with.

President Zardari promises a jiyala as the chief executive of a province he is so keen to divide — and he vows to divide it before the election. His campaign for a Seraiki province has virtually cut off the central Punjab districts from PPP’s future map, if such a vision exists.

And even without the negative publicity the new suba in the south has generated in the northern and central parts, the PPP was faced with formidable odds in the upper districts of Punjab.

The industrial parts have been restive due to the economy, the public perceptions blaming it on the energy shortage. The PPP places much faith in the south and in the rural areas elsewhere in Punjab, with some justification.

The Zardari camp is trying to highlight how its policies have benefited the farmers. However, a lack of sufficient political initiative in urban areas that act as ultimate models for development reflects in the lackadaisical PPP presence in the crucial towns.

Mr Zardari has finally called on the party cadres to prepare for some real politics. What magic he works to spur a long dormant force is as much a mystery to the people of Lahore as is his much-celebrated powers to upstage opponents.

He has so far upstaged no one here and is more known to the people of the city as a man seeking to extend his rule by submitting to the wishes of one and all. And in certain parts of the province, the party is very dependent on the relationships the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid, not quite a natural ally, has nurtured over time.

This is new for the PPP. It has never played second fiddle to another political force to hedge its bets, at least not in Punjab. The ideological chasm that exists between two partners is not only visible, it could cost the PPP votes. And much before the polls, the adjustment on seats with the Q League is a climb that could make huge demands of Zardari and company.

The PPP’s own ability to secure a share in the pre-election harvest of "winnable" candidates is severely compromised by the gap between popular demands and the delivery by its government, with everyone’s focus on urban areas.

The party-joining season is on but very few of the seasonal birds that have an uncanny knack of foretelling a result are currently committing themselves to contesting the polls under the PPP tricolour. By contrast, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and PML-Q have enlisted many. Also, while it would not admit this, the PPP has lost a sizeable chunk of supporters to PTI.

This is the real world outside the Governor’s House in Lahore. The president has emerged from his long detention. He must come face to face with reality.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.


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