Nirupama Subramanian

There is speculation that if pressure grows on President Asif Ali Zardari to resign, the PPP may fall back on the “Sindh card” to mobilise political support for him.

What do a piece of cloth and a cap have to do with the present political uncertainty in Pakistan?

A lot, it would seem, if that cloth is a block printed red-and-blue piece of cotton called ajrak and the cap of the kind that is embroidered with colourful threads and mirrors and has a distinctive slit cut out of its front where it rests on the forehead.

Both are native to the Sindh province. So is President Asif Ali Zardari, although he is an ethnic Baloch, and the Pakistan People’s Party, which he leads, has a special place in the hearts of Sindhis. It was a son of the province, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who founded it.

As the PPP government finds itself in hot water over the Supreme Court verdict on the National Reconciliation Ordinance, there is speculation that if pressure grows on President Asif Ali Zardari to resign, the party may fall back on the “Sindh card” to mobilise political support for him.

The PPP has dropped some hints in this direction already. On December 6, the PPP-led government in the Sindh provinvce, of which this city is the capital, observed the “Sindhi Topi Day- Sindhi Ajrak Day”, celebrating both the cap and the colourful cloth that is worn like a shawl by both men and women in rural Sindh.

Combined with Sindh’s traditional sense of alienation from Pakistan’s Punjabi-dominated ruling elite, and the strong sense of martyrdom in Sindhi political consciousness over the “judicial murder” of Bhutto senior and the killing of his daughter, the topi and ajrak have now become an essential part of Sindh political symbolism.

“We put up a stall outside the Sindh secretariat that day. We sold about 4,000 pieces of ajrak and hundreds of caps,” said Shyam Das, an ajrak retailer in Karachi’s Zainab Market.

By the time the Supreme Court verdict came, a feeling that Sindhis were being vicitmised was already in the air.

A day after the full-bench struck down the NRO, the Sindh Assembly passed a unanimous resolution reposing confidence in the leadership of President Zardari, and recommending to the government that December 6 should be observed as the “Sindhi Topi and Ajrak Day” every year.

In a session that was spread over six hours without a single break, legislator after legislator in the provincial assembly stood up to make emotional speeches, condemning what they described as a conspiracy against Mr. Zardari, and said he was being targeted as he was a Sindhi.

“Enough is enough. Sindh is not going to receive any more dead bodies lying down,” one legislator declared on the floor of the house, recalling that the province had already made its share of sacrifices for democracy in the deaths of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto.

Sindh card

The sentiment surfaced again at the PPP central executive committee held three days after the Supreme Court verdict. Party leaders from Sindh are reported to have spoken in charged tones against Supreme Court verdict, bluntly saying they viewed it purely as the persecution of a Sindhi president by a Punjabi-dominated establishment.

One leader even urged President Zardari to use the “Sindh card”, much to the horror of party leaders from other parts of the country who warned that going down that road would destroy the PPP’s national character.

Unlike other parties, the PPP is seen as the only political force in the country with a good standing in all four provinces, even though it is undeniably Sindh that forms the backbone of the party. Benazir Bhutto always took pride in describing her party as the “symbol of the federation”, and “the chain that links the four provinces” of Pakistan.

Mr. Zardari is also said to have rejected the “Sindh card” suggestion, reminding the party congregation that after his wife Benazir’s killing, when enraged PPP supporters in Sindh were raising slogans against Pakistan, it was he who had calmed them down with the slogan: “Pakistan Khappay” – We want Pakistan. On a visit to Karachi, he met with party workers and reiterated once again that the PPP would never stray from the path of strengthening the federation.

Still, some observers view the continuing “persecution” theme in the tone and tenor of speeches by the PPP’s Sindhi leaders as inspired by the top leadership, and a veiled warning of the turn matters might take.

President Zardari’s own emotional outburst at Benazir’s grave in Garhi Khuda Bux at her second death anniversary on Sunday further reinforced “conspiracy” and “martyrdom” as the centre-piece of the PPP narrative.

He hit out at nameless “conspirators” who were undermining him, democracy and Pakistan, because, as he put it, he had dared to further the political legacy of the Bhutto family as well as its bloodline by fathering Benazir’s three children. He even described Garhi Khuda Bux, where all the Bhuttos are buried, as the “Karabala of the PPP”, a reference to the martyrdom of the seventh century Imam Hussein, which is observed as Muharram.

President Zardari’s critics, however, question the party’s capability of mobilising support for him even in its traditional base. He is nowhere near as popular as Benazir or her father in Sindh. There is also dissatisfaction with the PPP for not delivering even on the basics of food, clothing and shelter in its two years in power, let alone anything with a special resonance for Sindh.

Even so, some observers believe that the perception that once again, the Pakistani “establishment” is persecuting a Sindhi leader could well override Mr. Zardari’s lack of popularity and the grievances against the government.

“The PPP comes to power mainly due to the Sindh mandate. And there is a feeling that whenever there is a PPP government, the establishment does not accept it,” said Zamir Ghumro, a Karachi-based lawyer and a columnist in the popular Sindhi newspaper Kawish.

The party has announced it will start a mobilisation campaign in January, which many see as an attempt to counter pressure on Mr. Zardari to quit office.

“If there is any move to force Mr. Zardari to resign, there will be a reaction in Sindh, definitely. The estrangement from Islamabad,” said Mr. Ghumro “will increase and nationalist feelings will rise.”

Meanwhile, in Karachi markets, shopkeepers selling ajrak and topis said they do not care about the politics, but do not mind if they can sell a few more of these traditional Sindhi items.