Ask Faryal Talpur about the most difficult phase of her life and she doesn’t come out with a reply. She’s never considered anything difficult, she says. Very few people have the ability to make a statement like that in a self-effacing manner. The PPP women-wing president is one of them.
Prod a little more, and it’s clear she has seen her share of tough times in politics. Back in 1997, her husband, brother and father were all in jail. This was when she contested an election for the first time. “I had no intention or aptitude to join politics. But my father wrote me a letter from jail, one that changed my life. He asked me not to lose faith or courage. To put in a fight for the honour of the party.”
Has she made tough political decisions? “The most emotional decision was my resignation from my position as Nazim of Nawabshah after the shahadat of Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.”
It would have been a tough decision. She didn’t take her job lightly and pulled no punches while she was there. She famously read the then chief minister the Local Government Ordinance when he wanted to make some recruitments to the district education department. “Only the EDO Education can allot these jobs after carrying out the required interviews,” she wrote to him. He didn’t insist further.
That wasn’t all. She also ruffled many feathers when it came to tribal issues, specially the persecution of girls who had eloped with boys of other tribes. If the elopement was consensual, she maintained, there is no way she should be forced to return. That wouldn’t have gone well with local tribesmen, specially coming from a woman, but the then Nazim called it like she saw it.
She doesn’t, however, like to draw attention to any possible disadvantages that come with being a woman politician. Though hers, for obvious reasons, would be a different experience when compared to other, less privileged women in politics.
She might want to downplay any disadvantage that stems from her gender but surely she can’t deny it takes a toll on her personal, family life? “Politics is a day to day job which you cannot do from somewhere else. I disagree with people who are elsewhere and do politics over the phone.” That takes time, like it does, she muses with many professions. “But I try to spend time with my family, specially on the weekends and the holidays.”
And no bluff, this. Despite her busy schedule, she is known to personally tutor her daughters academically. Even during this interview, after a Spartan lunch, her daughter came seeking her mother’s help with some mathematics problem.
Politics doesn’t come without its pitfalls, rumours being one of them. One about her that is doing the rounds: Indus Airways and her alleged ownership of Indus airways. “I have absolutely nothing to do with this. I am not too business oriented a person.” She’s already gone to court and filed defamation suits over the issue.
Many would have no reason to disbelieve her denial but wouldn’t extend such candour to the rest of the party. Allegations of corruption have indeed dogged the PPP for much of its existence. “We have faced these allegations every time we were in power. When Zia came into power, he accused Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto of corruption but when he could manage to prove anything, he accused him of murder,” she says.
The president’s sister is a bit of an enigma. She hasn’t exactly made this mystery go away by being reluctant to come in the limelight. This has all let imaginations run wild. Point blank: Is she the de facto chief minister of Sindh?
“Of course not! I don’t even have time to spend in Karachi. My time is divided between my constituency in Larkana, Nawabshah and Islamabad. Yes, I do meet the chief minister but to discuss the issues of my constituency. It is my right to do that.”
As hard as she might try to dispel certain impressions, there is no denying she is in the thick of things. Having both the trust of the President and an inherent knack for getting things done, she is an effective fire-fighting squad. Examples: the recent general elections in Azad Jammu & Kashmir. Another, she personally screened all the PPP candidates for the senate. Most importantly, she is now to direct the party’s affairs in the Punjab.
Speaking of Punjab, she is more than hopeful about the province. Yes, the PPP has a significant presence in the Punjab at the moment but she swings for the fences. “We will win a majority in the next elections.” Tall order and not too realistic. The last time the party formed government in the province was 1977. Things have gotten worse since then, not better.
If the confidence is an act, she certainly has learnt her part well. She can call up any set of statistics immediately. “In the agriculture sector, the net income of Rs 50 billion in 2008 reached Rs 500 billion in 2011. Our stock exchange was at 5000 points in 2008. It is on 13500 points now. Our foreign exchange reserves have increased from $ 6 billion to $ 16 billion. The interest rate, which was at 15% in 2008 is now at 12%.” Impressive stats, specially the one about agriculture. If the incessant inflation we are seeing was brought about by global food inflation, the latter also brought about rural prosperity, specially in the agricultural sector.
But surely all performance on the economic front is good. Mismanagement of the power sector draws the party a lot of flak. “Everyone should come together and work out a solution to the energy crisis. We are taking the lead. The Thar Coal project has already started.”
On the economic front, another party principal she defends is the MFN status to India. “It is good for the future of this country, for the people of this country, for the economy to do trade with neighboring countries the way we are doing trade with China. There is no harm in making India a friend. We have to outgrow this mindset of ours that thinks of India as an enemy.”
“We have to grow up, we have to mature up, we have to realize that India is a reality.”
Her goodwill extends to the rest of the neighbourhood as well, the way she reiterates her stance on US pressure regarding the Pak-Iran gas pipeline. “We need gas. This is our internal matter.”
Her disagreements with the US on Iran notwithstanding, she is firmly in favour of the war on terror. “We fought against all those terrorist elements and the PPP government will continue fighting against them. Yes, if the militants give up their arms and stop fighting within Pakistan and creating troubles for the world, some sort of dialogue could be started with these organizations.”
“Education is the only way forward. Had this generation been imparted correct education 20 years ago, our society wouldn’t have witnessed Talibanisation that is so rife today.”
Accusations of mismanagement don’t stop at the economy. Karachi burns yet again. “We are in a coalition with the MQM and the ANP. There are consultations going on. No party encourages criminal elements. The criminals are merely taking advantage of the situation.”
Perhaps her most interesting political stance pertains to the party’s relations with the PML(N). “It was a big mistake,” she says. The party believes in the politics of reconciliation. They reconciled not only with the MQM, ANP and the PML(Q) but also with the PML(N).
“I think at this stage, the PML(N) should reconcile with the PPP for the betterment of this country because the people in this country are not in a position to put up with this fight,” she says.
Far from being threatened by new players like the PTI, she goes to the extent of encouraging them. “It will be very nice if Imran Khan contests the elections. Every political party should get its space.”
But does she think he will dent PPP rival PML(N)’s vote banks? “I don’t know. He just might be able to do that. He draws huge crowds at his jalsas. We don’t know whether they’d actually vote for him.”
Some have even left her party for him. People have left in the past as well, only to come back, she says. “Our doors are always open.”
The lady doesn’t come up with an unexpected answer when asked about her political ideal. Her late sister-in-law. “She is the one who brought me into politics. I was very close to her. She is the one who convinced my family to let me contest the elections. She wasn’t just a national asset but an international