Karachi is about to witness its most exciting & fiercely contested election season in recent memory. A total of 21 National Assembly seats remain up for grabs in the wake of MQM’s systematic decline while PPP eyes resurgence post a dismal show in 2013. Yet 2 weeks away from D-day & amid political suspense engulfing Punjab, the fate of our former federal capital hangs in the balance. To understand Karachi other than the heaps of debris & outright institutional debacle, it is critical to understand the city’s most well-entrenched political entity MQM, & how it went about business over all these years.
For over three decades, the party drew political relevance by ‘producing’ crisis they could later resolve. Each crisis would be dealt as a unique project, carefully maneuvered by designated project managers stationed in the party headquarters, Nine Zero. By pitching unsuspecting stakeholders against each other, MQM gradually elevated its status as the ultimate power broker of an ethnically polarized metropolis. Target Shias, hit Sunnis, invite both parties to Nine Zero, put on the arbitration cap, forge resolution & walk away with political brownies.
As many would later come out to confess, MQM’s political front extended cover to the militant wing which in turn obliged by helping further administrative control. Thus came into being a vicious cycle of coercion that left the city hostage for many, many years on the trot. Moral authority was never really a thing in the MQM power circle. The support base did not expect leadership – local or London based – to be morally upright; it’d gleefully contend with the mere notion of being well represented in legislative bodies. Since brand building is all about creating the right perception, the party nurtured neatly dressed, articulate gentlemen equipped with admirable oratory prowess to handle TV optics with a degree of panache.
Commerce in Karachi was hostage to MQM for as long as Altaf Hussain was politically relevant. For one, the business community found itself in desperate ‘Either/Or’ situations with minimal grey area to contend with. Well-meaning ‘Protection Packages’ obliged traders to either acquire fortitude against other ‘bad guys’ like ANP, TTP, Aman Committee etc., or face consequences similar to the unfortunate Ali Enterprises facility in Baldia Town.
The mantra was simple: Buy protection or leave yourself vulnerable. Zero respite; no in-betweens.
Perhaps, if a singular event/day could encapsulate the MQM phenomenon, it’d have to be May 12, 2007. The fateful day saw blood baths usually constrained to the narrow streets of Malir, played out on Main Shahra-e-Faisal under broad daylight. This event was laden with its own irony given that the party which played at the hands of a delusional military dictator in 2007 was to be accused of working in cohorts with Indian intelligence agency RAW a few years later. Regardless, MQM’s conduct on May 12 was a brilliant manifestation of the British colonial proverb, Divide & Rule. And so it remained until there came a point in the early 2010s where coercive control seemed increasingly difficult to justify.
Since we tend to be forgetful, the downfall of Altaf – much like the downfall of Nawaz – was initiated by Imran Khan on the political front. The rest of the country may have seen PTI emerge as a force in October 2011 at Minar-e-Pakistan, but the first time Karachi took notice of Imran was when he came out on live television blatantly shaming Altaf for the bloodshed on May 12, 2007. This stand-off in itself was no mean feat back in the day when MQM held all Karachi-based media houses to its mercy.
Fast forward to 2013 & you’ll find ample accounts confirming the MQM chief lost his element upon conceding 800,000 votes to PTI in the Karachi election, albeit only one NA seat. A series of unforced errors followed; most prominent of which would have to be a threat issued to peaceful protesters at Teen Talwar. The following months saw rationale desert Altaf in its entirety, as declining health coupled with overnight alcohol-infested tirades brought a succession crisis within MQM to the fore.
Shrinking political space & subsequent frustration finally led Altaf, in August 2016, to do the unthinkable: convince the Pakistani state beyond any realm of doubt that he’d outlived his expiry. Amid crisis, MQM’s local leadership – proponents of Divide & Rule all their lives - suddenly found itself divided along the lines of seniority, relevance, locality, establishment-backing etc. A political ideology fueled by Bhatta & Bori would only go thus far.
Heading into the 2018 campaign, the pertinent question to ask is what – if anything at all – might PTI bring to the table for the Karachi populace? PTI’s proven track record in KP reveals that it has the capacity to promise two key deliverables, which if attained in the context of Karachi could alter the latter’s outlook for good. Notwithstanding lip service, MQM despite all its years of power in Centre & Sindh delivered neither:
First, indiscriminate implementation of rule of law. This includes but isn’t limited to measures such as police reforms, computerized land registration & an autonomous local judiciary.
Second, no points for guessing, empowered local bodies.
The significance of either agenda item cannot be further emphasized given Karachi’s abysmal infrastructural outlook & fast declining living standards. Of course town planning, water scarcity & rapid urbanization are teething problems that require careful attention to detail, but is it now safe to assume that neither MQM nor PPP possess the capacity or intent to guard the city’s prime interests?
MQM’s modus operandi in the face of PPP’s provincial adversity has largely evolved around pandering to Islamabad for assistance. That said, a favorable candidate in the Governor House only makes it easier to acquire funds that go largely unaudited. Alternatively, here’s what PTI brings to the table. A bare minimum of 6 MNA & 12 MPA seats from Karachi assisted by a PTI government in the center, could potentially comprise an irrefutable pressure group adequately equipped to take on a hostile PPP-led Sindh government. Bearing that equation in mind & zero vested interests (militant wing, sugar mills etc.) to guard, PTI seems like Karachi’s most promising bet at helping land a fair share when it comes down to resource allocation.
Let’s take this theory forward.
Nearly all our lives have we witnessed political pundits wonder if PPP & Sindh shall forever remain inseparable. This is where PTI can & should sell its unique proposition in 2018: It is the only party capable of winning seats from Karachi/Hyderabad with the potential of forming government in Punjab & Centre. If ever there was the possibility of systematically dismantling PPP’s hegemony over Sindh, it would comprise a PTI majority mandate in Karachi/Hyderabad assisted by an Islamabad receptive to reform. MQM for all its pomp & glory, tried & failed largely due to its ethnic trappings. PTI on the contrary is entrenched on the national landscape & can function sans the handicaps specific to MQM and PPP. That PTI bagged a major chunk of the Urdu speaking community’s vote in 2013 further establishes its case as an evenly distributed representative sample.
Amid chaos lies Karachi’s ultimate window of opportunity. Of course ridding Sindh off PPP wouldn’t happen overnight, but may turn out to be a long, arduous struggle lasting multiple elected terms. Yet if ever a foundation needed to be laid, there may not come a better point in history than 2018. For a distant onlooker bred with self-nurtured insecurities, Karachi’s Urdu-speaking voter would do well to realize that PTI promises inclusivity. To rise above divide & blend its voice in mainstream Pakistani discourse is the only way forward.
Perhaps, Karachi’s moment of self-awareness has arrived.
About the Writer: Jehangir Mirza is a Marketing graduate from IBA Karachi, currently based in the UAE. He tweets at jehangirmirzaa