How the Bhuttos cemented PPP's status as a legendary party in Pakistan

The Pakistan People's Party has a relationship with the people in its heartland its rivals could only dream of

Supporters pray at the tomb of Benazir Bhutto in Garhi Khuda Bukash near Larkana.  AFP
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Pakistan’s long-awaited general elections have now been pushed back to February 2024 at the earliest by the country’s election commission, thanks to the decision to conduct a fresh census, and the redrawing of constituency boundaries based on the updated population figures.

Although there is serious uncertainty over who will win in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, when the polls eventually open, it is largely taken for granted that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) will retain its dominance over Sindh, home to the most populous city, Karachi. In fact, thanks to the military’s partial dismantling of two other parties – the MQM and the PTI – it seems likely that the PPP will be able to prevail in Karachi, deepening its hold over the province as a whole.

The PPP’s position in Sindh is unique; it has continuously led the provincial government for the past decade and a half. Going back further, the PPP rarely failed to secure at least a plurality of seats ever since its hugely successful debut in Pakistan’s first general elections, in 1970. No other party anywhere else in the country can boast such a feat.

Other provinces instead see regular alternation of power between major parties, and this in turn means that individual parties’ representation at the centre is volatile. Meanwhile, the PPP’s position in Sindh has consolidated even as it withered away in other provinces. The nature of Pakistan’s political system and the prominence of Karachi and Sindh within it means that the party’s enduring control there guarantees it significant and steady representation in the Senate and the national public sphere.

Even more extraordinary is the coalition of contradictory interests – conservative rural landlords, urban progressives and the poor everywhere – that has somehow held together over the decades in Sindh, even as it fell apart elsewhere in Pakistan. One of the consequences of those contradictions is a sharp contrast between the PPP’s message of upliftment and the glacially slow pace of change on the ground, especially in the countryside.

The continuing dominance of large landlords over local economies, bureaucracies, police and courts puts a very significant damper on change outside the province’s cities. As a result, Sindh continues to have some of Pakistan’s most unequal distributions of land ownership, along with significantly lower levels of rural development and services than Punjab. Northern Sindh, in particular, has a significant problem with violent “tribal” conflicts, which often devolve into gang warfare, with the state often little more than a hapless observer.

Sindh continues to have some of Pakistan’s most unequal distributions of land ownership

So why isn’t there more cynicism or room for local competitors? The key factor here is the sensitivity with which the Bhutto family – which has dominated the PPP since its formation almost 60 years ago – has cultivated its ties to rural Sindh. Three generations of polishing at Oxford and elite American universities has not come in the way of the family’s connection to this very different world. In particular, the Bhuttos have over the decades drawn on Sindh’s rich Sufi spiritual traditions and earned the reverence of many with highly public acts of generosity, service and self-sacrifice.

Perhaps this is why the near-constant allegations of corruption that dog them in urban Pakistan simply slide off in the countryside. As far as Sindhi voters are concerned, the Bhuttos have given them far more than they have taken over the past half century. This ranges from the protected status of the Sindhi language (preserving access to government jobs), to the multiple rounds of land reform in favour of landless tenant farm workers, and the establishment of the “Benazir Income Support Programme” to provide cash transfers to the very poorest. The result is that the Bhuttos, unlike other landlords, are still seen as committed to providing relief to those at the bottom of an extremely unequal society.

Earlier this year, the PPP government in Sindh secured funding from the World Bank to provide modest cash grants and, more importantly, land titles to women in 2 million households in Sindh whose adobe-mud homes were damaged or destroyed in the unprecedented glacier-driven flooding of 2022. The cash is intended to help families construct more modern, weather-resistant homes, but the real wealth transfer comes from the land titles, which grant clear asset ownership rights that were often lacking.

It is precisely this kind of initiative that keeps educated progressives as well as the poor coming back to the PPP and the Bhuttos despite some disappointments. Most notably, the PPP government has done little to rectify the huge – and hugely profitable – land-grabs from rural communities in and around Karachi by well-connected real-estate developers. In many cases, households in these indigenous communities lacked formal documentation to prevent the expropriation of their lands.

At the community level, acts of service and generosity generate the powerful emotional bonds which nurture die-hard supporters and activists, to the party, often from one generation to the next. The famed willingness of the most loyal supporters to sacrifice themselves for the movement – tested during several bouts of intense military repression in previous years – comes by example from the top. The imprisonment and execution of former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto under Gen Zia ul Haq in 1979, and the assassination of his daughter Benazir Bhutto in 2008 under Gen Musharraf’s watch, cemented their image as martyrs of and for the people.

There is no greater monument to the success of this reframing than the enormous, marble-clad Bhutto family mausoleum, located in their ancestral village on the family estate in Larkana district. It now functions like any major Sufi shrine in Pakistan, attracting a steady stream of visitors from far and wide who come to make prayers, pay their respects and participate in the spectacle, especially when crowds swell to truly enormous sizes on the death anniversaries of those buried there.

The rose petals and tears scattered on Benazir’s and Zulfiqar’s tombs by thousands of visitors represent a kind of connection with ordinary people that most politicians can only dream of in life, let alone death. Even the tomb of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the father and founder of the nation, 400 kilometres to the south in Karachi does not generate the same kinds of devotions and emotions. It is a world that does not easily translate to the rest of Pakistan or vice versa. As Pakistan wades through political uncertainty and dangerously close to climate instability, rural Sindh seems set to continue on its own distinct path, shaped by its very own martyrs and legends.

Published: September 21, 2023, 2:00 PM