By--Farhat Taj

The PPP is losing space to the religious fanatics and silencing with its own hands all the sane and principled voices within the ranks of the party. Shortsighted and insensitive people are running the show in the party

Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has arguably been the most popular federalist party of Pakistan. The party has been binding Pakistanis across the ethnic and religious divide with the federation of Pakistan. It has secular credentials and has been backing minorities’ rights. In short, it has been an asset for the federation of Pakistan and the hope of millions of oppressed people in Pakistan. This was the PPP of the past.

The party’s current stint in power is anything but everything the PPP has been known for — moderation and people’s democratic rights. There is a lot that can demonstrate that the PPP, under the current leadership, has drifted far away from the cherished goals the party has stood and sacrificed for. Take, for example, the overpowered people of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the issues surrounding the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, former governor of Punjab.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto visited areas across FATA and established a popular tribal support base for the PPP. He announced major developmental schemes for the area that could never materialise due to his removal from power by General Zia soon afterwards. It seems that late Benazir Bhutto was fully aware of the ISI-controlled drama of terrorism in FATA and the threats it poses to the world. She knew how important it was to stop the ISI from using the tribal areas as strategic space against Afghanistan. Therefore, she had filed a case in the Supreme Court of Pakistan for the extension of Pakistan’s Political Parties Act to FATA.

What has the present PPP government done to eliminate the ISI’s unquestionable control over FATA? Only lip service. In August 2009, President Zardari announced the implementation of the Political Parties Act in FATA. The announcement was never followed by an official notification. It is clear that the ISI has no intention to give up FATA as a strategic region. What else could be the reason behind the lack of official notification of the president’s order? The president has no courage to tell the people of Pakistan that the military establishment is the hurdle to end the legal isolation of FATA. The party, it seems, is afraid that it will lose power if it tells the truth. Power, it seems, is more important for this government than the sufferings of the people of FATA.

On the other hand, the PPP is openly abandoning powerful people within its own ranks for taking a principled stance against the forces of religious fanaticism. Unlike the overpowered people of FATA, late Salmaan Taseer was the powerful governor of Punjab and an important member of the PPP. He gave his life for supporting a poor Christian woman entrapped in a dubious blasphemy case. The PPP, which is supposed to be a supporter of the minorities’ rights, extended him no support. He was left vulnerable to attacks by religious fanatics, who took his life. The party succumbed to religious fanaticism and abandoned one of its own members who had taken a principled stance on this issue.

Another PPP member, Sherry Rehman, who was prepared to table a bill to amend the country’s blasphemy laws in the National Assembly, has been silenced and made to give up the plan by the party. Reportedly, the minorities’ minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, has had fatwas issued against him calling for his assassination. The minister has been participating in public debates over the blasphemy laws and has been highlighting legal flaws in the laws. There is no sign the PPP would publicly stand by the minister for fear of losing power under pressure from the right-wing lobby. It looks as though clinging to power is more important for the party than protecting minorities.

The PPP is losing space to the religious fanatics and silencing with its own hands all the sane and principled voices within the ranks of the party. Shortsighted and insensitive people are running the show in the party. Rehman Malik, the interior minister, even had the audacity to declare in the backdrop of Taseer’s assassination that he would kill with his own hands anyone found to be involved in blasphemy. Moreover, in FATA no one takes the interior minister seriously. Everyone knows he means nothing in the ISI scheme of things for FATA. Yet he would never desist from giving statements on FATA. The more he sounds firm in his statements on FATA, the more ridiculous he appears. He looks more like an entertainer and less of an interior minister to the FATA tribesmen.

The other irresponsible voice in the PPP is that of Fauzia Wahab. She has been issuing insensitive statements regarding the Swat IDPs crisis. For example, she said that, like Afghan refugees, the people of Swat could not be allowed to spread across Pakistan. The shortsighted PPP spokesperson did not care to think that, unlike the Afghan refugees, the Swat IDPs were citizens of Pakistan and had the right to go wherever they like in Pakistan.

It seems the current group leading the PPP believes that it can survive in power by appeasing the religious right-wingers. Thus the party is giving up its traditional moderate, secular and progressive role to accommodate the ever-demanding religious right-wingers. This is dangerous, especially in places like FATA where the state of Pakistan has lost legitimacy due to the ISI’s use of the area for strategic games through religious forces at the cost of the tribesmen’s blood. A moderate, progressive and pro-tribal people stance of the PPP could have saved the deteriorating state legitimacy in the area. Moreover, it could have affirmed the oppressed people like the religious minorities’ hopes in the PPP and by extension in the state. The current situation characterised by the rising power of the religious Right is not sustainable over a long period of time. It may ultimately lead to the break up of the state. Should that happen, the PPP would also be responsible for giving up it secular credentials in the face of the growing tide of the religious Right, which added to the people’s lack of confidence in the state.

The writer is a PhD Research Fellow with the University of Oslo and currently writing a book, Taliban and Anti-Taliban