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Politics in the city of dissent

With the MQM mired in infighting, will the upcoming elections change the political landscape of Karachi?

Politics in the city of dissent

Last Sunday’s PSL final rejuvenated the Karachi crowd. For once, it allowed them to disregard the scenes of sectarian, ethnic and political violence and yet it could not prevent them from raising slogans like “go Nawaz go”.

It’s true that a city that contributes over 70 per cent of the country’s total revenue deserves more than this. This brings us to the key questions: why has Karachi been ignored in the past?

Karachi’s political dynamics are unique. Since Independence, the ruling elite has known this metropolis as a ‘city of dissent’. In all these years, unlike the major cities of Pakistan, Karachi has never voted for the party in power in Islamabad — for the overriding feeling among the millions of Karachiites has been of injustice, deprivation, and the failure of national leaders to take the true ‘ownership’ of the country’s economic hub.

If Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League, the two parties that have dominated the political scene for the past 40 years, couldn’t win in Karachi, the three military dictators, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, General Ziaul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf, haven’t fared any better. The city rejected the so-called ‘referendum’ of Gen Zia and Musharraf, and hardly two to five per cent votes were cast in 1984 and 2001 respectively. But the city played a leading role in the movement against Ayub Khan.

Can Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which emerged as the third alternative and pulled off around 800,000 votes in Karachi, turn the tables in its favour in 2018? If Imran Khan wants a real tabdeeli he must create history by holding power in Islamabad and Karachi. But to achieve this, the PTI must do much more than it has in the last four years. Last elections the party won one National Assembly and three provincial assembly seats in the city. Presently, the field is wide open for the party to take over.

For the PML-N, Karachi has never been a winning ground. In 2002, when the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) surprised the Muhajir Qaumi Movement (MQM) by winning six seats, the PML-N’s performance was disappointing. There was some surprise for the PPP in the last local bodies elections and that too in Lyari.

Karachi’s electoral politics is reflective of its ethnic diversity. Often regarded as ‘mini Pakistan’, the city’s 21 National Assembly constituencies are divided along Urdu speaking and the non-Urdu speaking lines. Today, Karachi has a huge Pashtun population, even more than Peshawar. It comprises over four million outsiders, living alongside Sindhis, Baloch, Punjabis and other communities. Urdu speaking (mohajir) and Sindhi vote bank is more or less intact. While Sindhi and Baloch votes have led the PPP to win in constituencies of Malir and Lyari since 1970, the mohajir vote bank, prior to the formation of the MQM, comprised Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP). Even these religious parties tilted their politics on ethnic lines in urban Sindh in the 70s.

The future of MQM is in unison, which at present looks like a remote possibility. Many political pundits believe that mohajir or Urdu speaking population is not in a majority in Karachi anymore. It will be interesting to see if their vote bank is still intact.

When Ayub Khan announced presidential election, the opposition parties nominated Jinnah’s sister Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah as their joint candidate. She won from Karachi and Dhaka.

That was the first time the people of Karachi expressed a voice of dissent. And it paid the price, as it witnessed the first ethnic killings during Ayub’s victory celebration. Karachi voted against Ayub for three reasons: his decision to shift the federal capital from Karachi to Islamabad, his action against the Urdu and Bengali bureaucracy, and the charisma of Fatima Jinnah.

Karachi has survived the worst ethnic and sectarian violence because it runs its own parallel economy. The city’s real estate sector has never shown a downward trend which has resulted in massive corruption in the building control departments and has given rise to land mafia.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Karachi’s youth supported the left wing student groups, like National Student Federation and Democratic Student Federation that played a significant role first during Fatima Jinnah’s election and later during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) led anti-Ayub movement in 1968. Their support was instrumental in dislodging Ayub who instead of handing over power to the speaker of the National Assembly entrusted General Yahya Khan.

Later, the ban on Communist Party of Pakistan in the 1950s split the Left between pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions. Many progressives joined Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s PPP in 1967. The rest joined the National Awami Party (NAP).

Neither PPP nor NAP could make inroads into Karachi’s politics even though Bhutto awarded party tickets to some notables from the Urdu speaking community of Karachi. The PPP won two National Assembly and eight provincial assembly seats in the 1970 elections, still none from the Urdu speaking constituencies. The two who got elected were late Abdul Hafeez Pirzada and late Abdus Sattar Gabol in the NA. Other NA seats were shared between Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan. But PPP did give a tough fight, even where it was runners up.

PPP was unable to win over the Urdu speaking vote bank in Karachi because Bhutto was accused by JI and JUP of following anti-mohajir policies, like quota system in admissions and jobs (though in jobs it was there since 1960s), and the Sindh Language Bill which was propagated as anti-Urdu legislation. Some of the JI veterans regret this election tactic and believe it laid the foundation of mohajir politics in Karachi.

The mohajir-oriented politics of the JI and JUP in urban Sindh hit the religious parties and Ziaul Haq after the imposition of martial law more than the PPP. In 1978, a former activist of Islami Jamiat-e-Tulba (IJT), Altaf Hussain, an active participant of the anti-Bhutto Pakistan National Alliance, laid the foundation of All Pakistan Muhajir Student Organisation (APMSO), and campaigned against the quota system and for the mohajir nationality. Hussain succeeded in creating history in the local bodies of 1987 and in the general elections of 1988 when Karachi voted for the powerful ethnic party, Muhajir Qaumi Movement. Muhajir Qaumi Movement was later converted to Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

The non-party-based elections of 1985 were the turning point in Karachi’s politics. For the first time, JI and JUP lost to a number of independent candidates.

In the 1988 elections, the people of Karachi voted for MQM not individuals. PPP, by winning three National Assembly seats, was the only party that somewhat resisted the mohajir wave. The win of Amir Haider Kazmi even though with a small margin of 300 votes was a real surprise.

For the next three decades, the MQM dominated politics in Karachi. The credit must go to the MQM leadership as well as the mysterious role of intelligence agencies.

Perhaps the decline in MQM can be attributed to its inconsistent politics towards the PPP-led Sindh government and the unnecessary use of muscle tactics which has not only resulted in violence but also infighting. The establishment also used the MQM militancy to its political advantage and created splinter groups. Yet, the MQM was a force to reckon with till the 2013 elections.

Can MQM make a comeback? It seems unlikely as the party is mired in severe infighting. The recent decision of the Election Commission in favour of MQM-Bahadurabad may not help in removing the differences among the party leaders, as they are more personal than issue based.

The JI and JUP have not benefited from a split in MQM. In the last four years, they have failed to secure even a second position in any by-elections. But, with the revival of MMA, JI, JUI and JUP will surely make a last ditch effort to improve their electoral position. But here too they may face a split in the religious vote bank as another front of religious parties is in the offing.

Despite a strong presence of Pashtuns in Karachi, the performance of Awami National Party, with one National Assembly seat and one or two provincial assembly seats, has been rather disappointing.

Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), led by MQM dissidents — former Mayor Syed Mustafa Kamal, Anis Qaimkhani, Anis Advocate, Raza Haroon, Dr Saghir Ahmad and others — has emerged with a different version of mohajir politics, i.e. Karachi for Karachiites irrespective of their ethnic and religious identity, is gaining space in the political landscape of the city. They are trying to revive the old politics of Urdu speaking community. So far, they have not criticised any leader, except Altaf Hussain. In fact they propagate unity among all the factions of MQM.

PSP has made a bold demand for complete amnesty for over 3,000 MQM militants in jail. They believe their cases should also be considered like Baloch or Taliban militants.

As I wrote in my previous article for this magazine, titled ‘The Movement called MQM’, the future of MQM is in unison, which at present looks like a remote possibility.

Many political pundits believe that mohajir or Urdu speaking population is not in a majority in Karachi anymore. It will be interesting to see in the upcoming elections if their vote bank is still intact. The next elections will also show if the breaking of the MQM into various factions will change the voting habits of the Urdu-speaking people. Will the mainstream parties like PTI, JI and PPP muster their support? The votes of religious parties are also likely to divide on sectarian lines despite the revival of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).

The infighting among MQM leaders has already opened the field for other parties. Karachi President of PPP, Saeed Ghani, is already sounding optimistic when he says, “We will win at least six to seven seats, if not more.”

One must wait and see how the strong vote bank of Urdu speaking people is used to change the political discourse in Karachi. One thing is certain — the dissenting character of Karachi will remain unchanged, even if no one owns it.

Mazhar Abbas

mazhar abbas
The author is a senior journalist and former secretary general of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists.

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