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Karachi’s tsunami

2018 has the potential of being interpreted in years to come as a real watershed in the city’s politics. The overwhelming vote in favour of one party reveals that the past is not as relevant to the present as many would have assumed

Karachi’s tsunami
Biases on display

Karachi has been sulking and sullen for a very long time. Feeling misunderstood by the rest of the country, it persisted in voting in a regional party which remained in varied degrees of conflict with the federal centre for a great part of its three-decade career.

The 2018 elections are being viewed, rightly so, as a seismic shift in the city’s psychological relationship with the state of Pakistan. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI’s) success on an overwhelming majority of the seats, that steadily went to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) in all the elections the party contested since its inception, marks a truly historic moment for Karachi and the politics of its numerically most prominent community — the Urdu-speakers (or, more broadly and loosely, the ‘Muhajirs’). For the first time in longer than most people can remember, Karachi has voted for a party which also has enough of the national vote to form a government at the centre.

How do we assess this shift? How and when did the people of Karachi decide to view the PTI seriously? And vice versa? The latter question is easier to answer. The kind of support that Karachiites demonstrated for the PTI in the 2013 elections came not only as an unpleasant surprise to the MQM, but seemed also to startle the PTI itself. Although some of the most prominent PTI office-bearers hail from Karachi, the on-the-ground party structure in the city has never been too impressive. Indeed, even in these latest elections, it was not at all clear right up till election day itself which way the city would swing.

Political developments since the last elections meant the MQM had taken a severe beating both organisationally and ideologically. Yet, the committed nature of its ethnic base made it difficult to tell with much certainty whether this would be enough to defeat it in its traditional strongholds in Karachi.

That a repeat of MQM’s previous successes was still not completely out of the question is a belief that the PTI also appeared to hold. While Imran Khan mercilessly hammered the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in his election speeches, he did not seem to take as harsh a line against the MQM as he could have, an indication that he envisioned a post-election scenario where an alliance with the MQM might prove key to enabling the PTI to form a government at the centre.

An interesting feature of these elections for Karachi was that an amazingly large number of people remained undecided till the eleventh hour about who they would vote for and whether to vote at all. A section of that part of Karachi’s electorate which had braved the obstacles created by the MQM to vote for the PTI in 2013 now became unsure. Following recent public criticism generated by a spate of seemingly bizarre and confusing political and personal acts of the PTI chief, they debated whether they should vote for him again or whether there was some worthier alternative for their support.

An interesting feature of these elections for Karachi was that an amazingly large number of people remained undecided till the eleventh hour about who they would vote for and whether to vote at all.

For the MQM’s traditional voter whose support had held strong during the 2013 elections, the consequent political events involving their long-time party chief’s increasingly wild and aggressive public statements against the state, his own party officials, and even the citizenry of Karachi belonging to his own ethnic group had proved embarrassing. Though a sense of loyalty and sentimentality around the ‘Jiye Muhajir’ slogan was not completely erased, it became harder than ever to sustain the popular narrative that the MQM was no worse in attitude or style to any of the other major political parties (at least in Sindh).

With the weakening/disintegration of the MQM, a debate arose whether allegiance should shift to one of the party’s successors organisations (MQM-Pakistan or Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP)) or to the Muttahida Majlis-e Amal (MMA) or PTI. The Jammat-i-Islami (now part of the MMA alliance) had traditionally been the original party of choice for households from whom the MQM directly inherited a significant part of its core support in Karachi. The young generation who been swept away by the romance of the MQM’s youthful leadership was now growing middle-aged (as had many MQM leaders themselves such as Farooq Sattar — now in the MQM-P — who had once been the very epitome of youthful lustre as the 28-year-old mayor of Karachi, one of the youngest mayors anywhere in the world in 1988).

With middle age came an increased attraction to the masjid, and with the weakening of the MQM, it stood to reason that the JI (as part of the MMA) might gain a return in support. After all, when the MQM put itself out of the picture by boycotting the local body elections in 2001, it was the JI that emerged as the beneficiary. As Karachi’s mayor, the JI’s Naimatullah Khan made a name for himself for doing an energetic and relatively effective job before the MQM’s Syed Mustafa Kamal came on the scene in 2005 and achieved unparalleled fame and popularity in this task.

The credit must go to the PTI for offering a mainstream platform which did not make use of any particular kind of ethnic card.

The credit must go to the PTI for offering a mainstream platform which did not make use of any particular kind of ethnic card.

As regards the PTI, while this party had gained popularity among a variety of voters in different parts of the city, there was still a strong lingering tendency in the traditional Muhajir ghetto to view the party antagonistically as representative of a well-heeled and decadent Punjabi elite. The prejudice against Imran Khan as a ‘Lahore’s boy’ that Karachi’s cricketing press had fanned during the 1980s had not completely faded; the effect of that memory could still be discerned even among a new generation of Karachiites. The offence caused to middle-class morality in the 1990s by the PML-N and MQM’s propagandistic highlighting of aspects of Imran Khan’s personal history also continued to play a part in creating obstacles to the growth of PTI’s appeal in areas of Karachi where it had been slow to penetrate. This continued to compete, however, with other religio-ethical imperatives such as concerns about governmental corruption and geopolitical themes affecting Muslim/Pakistan self-esteem on which the PTI’s slogans struck a chord.

Some left/liberal-oriented analysts did speculate that the PPP would capitalise on the space that the MQM vacated in Karachi. Yet this seemed to have more to do with wishful thinking than a grounded analysis of plausible trends in areas which had long been strongholds of the MQM. Despite Bilawal Bhutto’s rhetoric and demeanour sometimes pushing the right buttons among better-educated sections of the community, the PPP largely continued to be seen as a party with articulate and effective speakers but ineffective service delivery. The appreciation won by some legislative achievements of the PPP was counterbalanced by perceptions of inefficiency, nepotism, and weak governance.

Besides, nothing much had happened to counter its persisting reputation as a party that was far more committed to serving the needs of the Sindhi-speaking ‘interior’ (caricatured as ‘rural’ and ‘feudal’) than those of the predominantly artisanal and white-collar Urdu-speaking community in Pakistan’s biggest metropolis.

There was little expectation of the PML-N making any noteworthy inroads into the Karachi vote-bank. Though with a somewhat better record in governance than many other parties, it was not perceived to be particularly interested in anything beyond north and central Punjab, an impression its rather late and half-hearted election campaign here did little to correct. Also, the PML-N’s leadership’s overwhelming reputation as a prize collection of incompetent yokels made it the very counter-image of how Karachi has long loved to imagine itself, a view that has increasingly been reflected in significant sections of urban Punjab, too.

Hence, the MQM-P, PSP, JI, and PTI were the parties poised as the main contenders for the vote in the areas under discussion as people considered new choices and re-examined old ones in the wake of dramatic events and changes in the city’s politics over the past five years. The situation of uncertainty and indecision was so profound and protracted that on the very eve of elections, even close relatives and neighbours often couldn’t have said who the other person was voting for. An unusual situation for a city like Karachi which had fallen into the habit of voting along fairly clear-cut ethnic lines over the past three decades.

In the event, many who had spent the past year decrying the PTI and its haphazard-looking style of politics found themselves voting for it yet again for lack of a desire to see the city go to the MQM’s successors or the MMA. More importantly, a huge number of new voters decided to join them in taking the plunge. The credit must go to the PTI for offering a mainstream platform which did not make use of any particular kind of ethnic card. This provided a realistic alternative for voters looking to jump ship, an incentive they did not feel they had for years faced with the PPP and PML-N’s more parochial and alienating style of politics.

A notable aspect of voting behaviour in Karachi was that quite a number of people chose to vote for different parties at the national and provincial level. This could have been due to differing political calculations of which party they think would be best-placed to represent their needs and desires in the two respective assemblies. Alternatively, it could also be people’s way of showing allegiance and endorsement to two different parties/individuals in ranked preference. For example, a number of people opted for the PTI-MQM combination, with many preferring to vote for PTI for the National Assembly.

An interesting case is that of Jibran Nasir, the young independent candidate who achieved nationwide media fame by running on a platform of niche political issues. His supporters were dispersed across the country, but naturally only voters in NA-247 had the option of voting for him. Interestingly enough, quite a few individuals in this locality seemed caught between voting for him or the PTI, with some choosing to opt for a combination where they voted for him for one assembly (to show him encouragement) and for the PTI in another (so that it may form the government). This indicates that contrary to portrayals of Jibran Nasir and the PTI as being polar opposites in terms of political values and outlook, in the eyes of a significant number of voters, there was overlap in the overall appeal and style of both, excepting differences on one or two points.

The overwhelming vote in favour of the PTI reveals many things about how Karachi today understands itself. It reveals the past is not as relevant to the present as many would have assumed. There had been a calculation that all that Altaf Hussain had to do near election time was send out a rallying call and much of the city would fall in line. Almost till the very end, old supporters waited for the party (or rather its immediate successor, MQM-P) to straighten out its house and overcome the infighting in time for the elections. Although they vowed to place their stamp on whoever ended up in possession of the MQM’s old ‘kite’ symbol, the predominant impression remained that this was a rather shakily propped-up house.

From Altaf Hussain himself, no more inspiring message could be heard than a call to boycott the elections. The effect of this, while it cannot be dismissed as negligible, proved to be nowhere as powerful as he might have hoped. There was growing exhaustion with the city’s old style of politics.

The Urdu-speaker’s typical reaction to the MQM over the past decade or so has ranged from wishing dearly to teach it a much-needed lesson to a visceral nervousness at the prospect of the party’s complete political disappearance. The desire to punish and cast aside the MQM for its persistent bullying, criminality, and lack of vision, strategy, and capacity kept battling with the fear that its lack would leave the community unrepresented, unprotected, and powerless in the face of possibly even more uncertain, hostile forces in the city and province.

2018 thus has the potential of being interpreted in years to come as a real watershed in the city’s politics. By taking the pragmatic decision to repose its trust in a national party, Karachi has demonstrated that a whole host of circumstances has allowed it to emerge (at least for now) from its erstwhile siege mentality and that it is willing to take a risk to imagine not exactly a utopia but certainly a different future. Karachi’s overwhelming endorsement of a party like the PTI which sprang from Lahore and ruled in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa is a positive sign that the people of the city see themselves as having more in common with parallel classes in other parts of Pakistan culturally, politically and aspirationally than they ever have in recent history.

Ideas of such a thing as the ‘youth vote’ might be seen to have been applied by analysts to the PTI more than to any other party in Pakistan’s history over the past four or five decades. However, ideas of the ‘middle-class vote’ have been used to explain the MQM’s appeal far before they started to be applied to the PTI. The MQM and its voters saw themselves as the middle-class party par excellence — for the middle class by the middle class. It empowered middle-class unknowns (rather than big ‘feudals’ or industrialists) as they have never been empowered before by any other party. The PTI, quite evidently, might enjoy the support of the middle classes and try to represent middle-class views and values, but unlike the MQM, only a section of its leadership can boast anything in the way of a profoundly middle-class income level at the time of entering politics.

Gone are the days when Karachi saw itself as a natural leader. In the new scenario, it might just be more than satisfied to follow trends suggesting a ray of hope originating elsewhere in the country.

Although MQM supporters do, and shall continue to, hail the party as the most consistent and authentic example of middle-class leadership among all the prominent political parties, what should be noted is that the MQM leadership is by and large more accurately described as lower middle class rather than upper middle class. And that MQM’s leadership is largely lower middle class despite the lack of a desire on the party’s part that it should be so. In the early days, the MQM had tried to tap the best-educated upper middle class and aristocratic elites from among the Muhajirs to join the party, but to little avail. Why should the best-educated Muhajir bureaucrats and technocrats risk their (neutral and competitive) national standing to participate in an ethnic movement which didn’t seem to be heading anywhere really besides an endless cycle of violence and legal troubles? The result: often silent and unspoken endorsement from behind the scenes and through the ballot box.

The MQM’s leadership might be largely drawn from the lower middle classes who felt the thinning of state employment and decline of state services most keenly, its cadres might be drawn from the poor to rapidly deteriorating lower middle class, but it should not be doubted that its support was (at least once upon a time) drawn from all classes of Muhajir society. A desire to see Karachi out of the complete grip of ‘Sindh’ was widespread. The issue of Karachi’s local administration and the differing interests of urban and rural Sindh date back to the earliest years after independence, and as early as the 1960s, a movement not dissimilar to the MQM (but much less influential) had risen under Nawwab Muzaffar Husain Khan — the Muhajir Punjabi Pashtun Mahaz (MPPM).

With Sindh’s stark rural-urban divide in view, even many of those who loudly despaired of the MQM’s criminally aggressive and short-sighted tactics could in private be heard to concede the advantages derivable from the existence of a party dealing with whom business for Karachi could effectively be carried out.

We may now have entered a period where most would like to brush aside this era in their memory, but the truth is that in all ranks and professions of Muhajirs (even among lawyers, doctors, academics or journalists), there was often a certain degree of pride in the MQM’s discipline and talent for organisation, with the uplift of the lower middle class being touted to disguise fascist tactics in achieving the kind of electoral results that the MQM generally did.

In later years, the MQM found another factor in its favour to help voters overcome their fastidiousness about its less savoury aspects. With the expansion of the Taliban’s activities within the country and the widespread fear it caused, the MQM enjoyed some success in marketing itself as representing a ‘secular’ way of thinking that was diametrically opposed to that which the Taliban exhibited. There were takers of this narrative all over the city and this did serve as an electoral selling point for the MQM during and beyond the Musharraf years. As one customer could be heard saying inside a smart beauty salon in an upscale locality of Karachi, “It’s only because of Altaf that we can dress like this (head uncovered, without a burqa) in Karachi.”

This is another key to the mystery prevailing in much of the country as to how and why Karachi as the ‘most educated part’ of Pakistan ended up supporting the most violent and militant of all the prominent political parties.

There was growing exhaustion with the city’s old style of politics.

There was growing exhaustion with the city’s old style of politics.

A factor which has led to the switch of the vote in Karachi to the PTI is that the ethnic temperature in Sindh has been relatively quite moderate for several years now. Given this, there has been a growing feeling that the MQM is rather an anachronism. With the growth in the private tertiary sector, the educated section of the Muhajir community has (as have communities in some other parts of Pakistan) largely weaned itself away from a dependence on public sector employment, and the spread of private news channels has reduced the perceived need for ethnic vigilantism to safeguard community interests in large urban centres.

Hence, other needs take precedence.

In the broadest of senses, much of the class that has now voted for the PTI in Karachi was the same class which had once voted MQM into power. For many in the city, who can wistfully recall some parts of MQM’s original manifesto, the feeling is that the PTI is basically an MQM born to better-off parents and in better circumstances.

The Muhajir vote for the PTI is an indication of their acceptance of the new mainstreaming of urban Punjab in culture and in industry. The delusional tendency to view themselves as the most fitting carriers of Pakistani culture has thankfully receded (or is in the process of receding). Karachi’s image of itself is no longer as confident as it once was. Even as the Urdu-speakers now speak of the superiority of their culture to the rest of the country (nay, the whole South Asian region!), their voice is more hesitant, less certain.

When they take the opportunity to climb out of the deep well of historical fantasy to take a good look around them, they don’t find the superiority they speak of to be as amply demonstrated as they had been led to imagine. Communities of all kinds in the country have forged ahead, and old equations are being rapidly reset. The lines between cultures in the city are blurring in the fluid edges of an increasingly Anglicised Urdu cosmopolitanism, the memories of old ‘homes’ and original ‘homelands’ are growing less sharp, becoming more myth and caricature than anything else.

What is real and tangible is the overall trend of decline in the city. A decline in public services and in the education sector.

Gone are the days when Karachi saw itself as a natural leader. In the new scenario, it might just be more than satisfied to follow trends suggesting a ray of hope originating elsewhere in the country. The PTI, in one sense, is a national movement that could only really have begun from a city like Lahore which has gotten used to seeing itself as the very heart of the country, rather than from some disillusioned and exhausted peripheral area. With this feeling of centrality also comes a sense of ownership and of expectant entitlement to ask for necessary reforms for the city and the country in a hopeful and insistent manner.

What is important to realise is that in as much as the PTI springs from the personality and worldview of its chairman and founder Imran Khan, it is very much an attempt by the upper middle class to take (and, in a longer historical sense, take back) control of its surroundings. It has become a common tendency among foreign writers to describe Khan as aristocratic; mystifyingly, even some local writers (in the English press) are falling into this habit. This is not an accurate description.

The relative formality and reserve of eastern manners can sometimes mistakenly create the impression of aristocracy in the minds of Westerners. However, this or the possession of household servants, a car and a driver in the 1960s or being able to send a child or two to Aitchison or Oxford does not necessarily make a Pakistani family aristocratic. From all reports and appearances, Imran Khan’s family seems to be a well-off and well-connected upper-middle-class Punjabi Pashtun family composed mostly of bureaucrats and professionals who also possess some minor land holdings. Not exactly the origins from which great political dynasties tend to spring in a country like ours where there is a fair share of families who can much more genuinely be categorised as part of the landed aristocracy (some members of which are in Khan’s party).

Also, none of Khan’s ancestors are cited to have played the kind of prominent leadership role in the Pakistan movement that is more common to families of more aristocratic backgrounds in different parts of the country.

In any case, even if Khan had been from an aristocratic background, his political style and demeanour would have been atypical of his class. Aristocrats commonly tend to be much more bland and well-rehearsed in their political style, and are also trained from their very childhoods to lead rather more restrained public lives in preparation for the prominent community roles they may later be expected to espouse.

Although Khan’s position as a major global celebrity of our times means that he enjoys power and influence far greater than most other citizens of his country (however wealthy), many of his views and attitudes do reflect the concerns and leanings of his upper-middle-class family background. This is an important factor in his party’s appeal to voters across the country who are looking for a new sort of political idiom, reminiscent neither of the kind condescension representative of an older, elite class of politicians nor the crude avarice seen amongst the crop of ‘upstart’ political actors who emerged in later decades.

In voting for the PTI, rather than hankering after representation by poor or middle-class politicians sprung from among themselves, voters appear to have resigned themselves to rule by elites who mostly do not belong to the middle class but appear committed to upholding its values and prioritising its desires. The retreat of the old, Anglicised colonial elite from many public domains of Pakistani life (to the detriment and decline of those domains) that occurred from the 1970s onwards may now, to some extent, be on the reverse, at least in the assemblies.

What may be returning now is not perhaps the old elite but a new kind of elite that promises both to represent and shape new trends in Pakistani cosmopolitanism in the coming days.

The vote for the PTI may in some ways also be taken to reflect a change in the nature of Karachi’s middle class itself. Rather than a self-righteous middle class that seeks to preserve what it feels to be its distinctive culture and privilege, and yearns and expects to see its own reflection and representation in the corridors in power, it now seems to be a more aspirational middle class that is looking to improve and cement its position in the national and global economy and seeks to work alongside parallel classes in other parts of the country to acquire the required skills and opportunities to do so.

However, it should not be overlooked that a very real gap exists between the needs and desires of the least privileged and most privileged sections of the Muhajir community and the opportunities respectively available to them. Karachi’s switch to a more national outlook may be quite evident at present, but it should be remembered that for many parts of the city, it is a switch that is not irreversible should the situation seem to call for it.

Ironically, although PTI candidates in Karachi won by margins substantially larger than in many other urban centres of Pakistan, it was relatively rare even quite close to the elections to encounter the kind of diehard fervour for the party and its chairman that can be seen among voters in other parts of Pakistan such as Lahore. This may be due to years of cynicism bred by particularly dirty politics in the city and the province as well as a significant physical and psychological distance from Islamabad, Lahore, and Peshawar which have till now formed the hub of the PTI’s politicking.

The PTI vote in Karachi was thus not always a dedicated, devoted, ideological one. Yet, now that the PTI has swept the polls in a historic wave, leaving old debris bemused, Karachi’s excitement is also very real.

Zahra Sabri

Zahra Sabri
The writer is a researcher and literary translator.

2 comments

  • Excellent analysis of politics in Karachi.

  • I have enjoyed Dr. Sabri’s writings, ever since an interaction with her a long time ago on a blog. She points out here that the move towards the PTI points to a recasting of the historic role Pakistan’s Urdu speakers (Muhajir people) have seen for themselves. With the widespread and deep adoption of Urdu, in both Punjab and KP, and its now inevitable march deeper into Sindh, a detached Urdu or Muhajir politics perhaps no longer makes any sense at a national stage.

    It is possible that the PTI will emerge as a party that espouses a common platform of the middle class Muhajir, Punjabi and Pashtun middle classes of Pakistan. On the other hand, an alliance between the PML(N) and PPP, representing more rural interests, along with Sindhi and soft-Punjabi nationalism is not inconceivable.

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