SHORTLY after the 2013 election, Nusrat Javeed, a very senior journalist, wrote a column in an Urdu paper about the various parties’ election campaigns. He described the PPP’s campaign as one based on brand fatigue — in advertising, this phrase is used to describe a message which is so repetitive that it tends to get ignored.

It was a column that was hard to forget and still is six years later. It is one that came to mind in the run-up to the party’s jalsa in Rawalpindi last week. The PPP turned it into a momentous occasion and it was. Ever since Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, her party has always marked her death anniversary in her hometown. This was the first time they ventured out and into Punjab.

In keeping with the occasion, the party even ran television ads about the jalsa but after a while these electronic messages seem to blend in with the background, for the message was the same as always. It seemed as if every ad was about the heroism and martyrdom of the party’s ruling family. Perhaps, this was a deliberate effort because the jalsa was in memory of Benazir Bhutto’s death. But it still brought back the 2013 column about brand fatigue.

This is not to say that her death should not be recognised. Few will disagree that her assassination was a great loss for Pakistan and her party, and that she and her father seem to have taken on saintly attributes for the people of Sindh. But beyond the province, the party may not have a very appealing message in the martyrdom of the Bhuttos.

No one, not even the PPP itself, believes the party wants to win anywhere but Sindh.

It’s hard to tell if the party understand this. From the outside, it seems not, because the message has not changed — perhaps because it works in Sindh and the PPP has become rather provincial (or shall one say unambitious) in its approach.

But those who still believe in the PPP argue that the party’s real message is not its oft-used rhetoric about its martyrs but roti, kapra aur makaan. And in a country with growing inequality, this message can and will resonate with the people. This is why some economists and politicians, who have worked on the ground, believe that the message has relevance even in Punjab.

If so, the message doesn’t seem to be getting across. Not in the media and not in the elections either, where the vote percentage of the PPP in the country’s largest province seems to be showing little signs of recovery since the ‘heady’ days of 2008 (which were heady only in comparison to the depths the party plummeted to in the next two elections). Consider that in the 2018 election, the PPP was able to secure six provincial seats while the PML-Q (which is little more than a district-level force now) won seven.

The media is easier to explain — as elsewhere it tends to focus more on middle-class voices and issues rather than the more vulnerable classes. This is why Imran Khan and his party seem to dominate in the noisy talks shows, for their message resonates more with the urban, middle class.

But surely this is not the only reason.

Can one also say that it’s about intent?

No one, not even the PPP, believes the party wants to win anywhere but Sindh.

And this is the message, which has not just spread all over Punjab and beyond but overshadowed all else that the party has to say (occasionally).

And those who don’t think such intangibles matter simply have to cast a glance at Imran Khan’s trajectory. From 2013 onwards, his worst critics and sincerest supporters could not deny that his aim was to challenge the mainstream parties, win elections and become prime minister.

And in particular, he wanted to win in Punjab — he consistently targeted the Sharifs. His first dharna forced Nawaz Sharif to form a judicial commission on election rigging and a second one (which was not carried out) led to the Panama case. Khan’s ambition catapulted him into the position where he was the main contender in Punjab.

The PPP, on the other hand, seems to think that ambition is a dirty word (a feudal characteristic if there ever was one). It hasn’t managed to convince anyone that it is serious or ambitious; the party itself isn’t convinced. Away from the camera lights, no senior party leader has anything to say when confronted by their lack of interest in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And it will take far more than the speeches by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari in parliament and occasional jalsas to change this.

Only once he is able to cross this hurdle will he have to address the other main problem plaguing his party — the identification of the party with corruption and misgovernance, as well as the unpopularity of his father.

In other words, his second challenge will be to make a break with his party’s recent past; after all, Benazir Bhutto inherited her father’s legacy and made it her own by putting in place policies which were radically different. For example, under her the PPP shared a more than comfortable relationship with the Americans, something Bhutto senior was not known for. She also moved the PPP away from some of the more socialist economic policies of her father. In addition, she also replaced her father’s colleagues with loyalists of her own.

In many ways, her party was different from her father’s. And it showed, above all, that she was aware of and willing to change with the times.

It is this streak of independence coupled with an ability to recognise the changing times that is so far missing from Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s tenure. There is little to show — from policies to people to approaches — that he is more than the sum of his mother and grandfather. And perhaps this is why Nusrat Javeed’s point about brand fatigue still stands valid — for the old message seems to reflect a party stuck in its past leadership, instead of one looking towards the rising sun.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, December 31st, 2019

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