President Asif Zardari was in Lahore the other week — the first time in over two years in the Punjab province and only the third time in the nearly five years he has been in the hot seat.
So what was the fuss all about? For those who are tuned into the minutiae of Pakistani politics it was hard not to see the significance of the visit, the objective behind it and the likely implications. Zardari, who is also the co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party, was in Lahore for house-warming as well 'party-warming'.
He has a spanking new house, reportedly sprawling over 200 kanals in the picturesque Bahria Town that comes complete with a helipad, guest-quarters that can house 30, an office that can staff 80 and a meeting hall that can gather over 300.
The 'house' — which is reportedly one of the costliest in Pakistan has not cost the president even a penny having being gifted by business tycoon Malik Riaz — is really a thinly disguised headquarters for the PPP in Punjab. It is a fortified property that is not just bullet proof but can reportedly withstand a bombing of 150kg of explosives.
Clearly it's been designed to make it secure enough to host a security-paranoid Zardari and his heir Bilawal Bhutto for extended periods and frequently. It thus becomes one of only five properties Zardari has brought himself (and his children) to spend a private night in Pakistan. The other four are the President House in Islamabad, the Bilawal House in Karachi, the Zardari House in his hometown Nawabshah and the ancestral Bhutto house in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh in Larkana.
So now that he has a place of his own to stay in Lahore and work, what is he going to do? Clearly, he has spent some time thinking about this: the house took about 15 months to build so he had planned this at least two years ago. The Governor House in Lahore has hitherto substituted as the de facto headquarters for the PPP for the past five years. First Salman Taseer and then Latif Khosa had allowed the use of the Governor House to conduct political activities safe from the less-than-covert harassment of the Chief Minister House run by the PPP's biggest political opponents — the Sharifs of Pakistan Muslim League-N.
However, three things have necessitated the shifting of the make-shift PPP headquarters to a formal place.
The first is the rapid countdown to the completion of tenures of the current national and provincial legislatures — which will expire in less than four weeks now; the second is the looming elections that will need a full-time functional headquarter to run the all-critical campaign in Punjab; and the third, growing pressure from political rivals and a hostile judiciary that both seek to pressure the PPP by challenging them on procedural and legal grounds and tightening the noose around a president-in-office in desperate need of defiant politics.
Clearly, staying on at the Governor House was not going to offer the PPP the comfort, the capacity and the collateral needed to mount a serious election strategy for Punjab. Hence, the Bilawal House Lahore Edition. And don't the political rivals know it! They sense a greater focus and more serious attempt by the PPP to not just arrest its drift in Punjab and close the ranks for battle but to focus attention and energy of the top leadership of the party in the province at the hustings.
The new PPP headquarters in Lahore also allows the president to get involved in politics in ostensibly a "private" capacity — out of the remits of the President House and Governor House — because he is facing legal proceedings in the Lahore High Court in a petition that seeks to bar him from indulging in politics as long as he is head of state and widely expected to demonstrate neutrality. Being in Bilawal House Lahore will allow him — just like in the case of Bilawal House Karachi — to project a private life in non-official space where he can serve out his co-chairpersonship of the party.
The bottomline is that the PPP needs to gear up to mount a serious fight for Punjab — which sends 148 members to the National Assembly (lower house of Pakistan's bicameral legislature) out of the 342 from across Pakistan. The math for PPP is, therefore, simple. If they want to return to power again, they — or any other party or alliance for that matter — need to win 172 of these seats as simple majority. For this, they will have to battle the giant in Punjab — PML-N of the Sharifs, rejuvenated by their stint in provincial power between 2008 and now.
For the PPP, to not just ensure a big enough tally in the National Assembly to cobble together a simple majority with its allies but also make a serious attempt to capture power in the provincial assembly as well, all roads lead through Punjab.
The recent flocking of 10 PPP MPs to PML-N ranks accentuates this reality.
The writer is freelance journalist based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.