Who Rules Karachi?
The MQM’s vote bank remains intact but is it ready for the change?
The MQM was seriously challenged by the PTI and Jamat-e-Islami in its control for NA-246 – and came out successful by a tall margin.
Aby-election is considered to be just that: a by-election and therefore a tame affair. There is no raucous campaigning. The seat is assumed as belonging to the party whose member had held it hitherto and goes routinely to another nominee of the same party as in the case when a candidate wins from more than one seat in the general elections and gives the others up after retaining one. Those seats almost routinely go to another member of the same party. Upsets are almost unknown.
Not so the by-election to the NA246 in Karachi held on April 23. The seat fell vacant after the resignation of Nabil Gabol of the MQM. Besides, the constituency is the party’s “fortress.” Its sanctum sanctorum is located at Nine Zero the nondescript house of
the party’s founder, Altaf Hussain, on a small 120-sq yard piece of land.
But, instead of allowing the MQM smooth sailing, the Pakistan Tehreeke-Insaf (PTI) and the Jamaat-e-Islami contested for the seat tooth and nail. The contest received more media hype than any other by-election had ever had. Pundits, soothsayers and sundry commentators - each a self-styled expert on Karachi - bloviated on the issue, often predicting MQM’s doom with subtle innuendos. The bottom line was that this context was the party’s moment of truth that held the key to its future.
Boosting such assumptions were the much-hyped raid of Nine Zero by the Rangers, the discovery of an arsenal of so-called NATO arms, arrest of a number of MQM officials, removing the road barriers to the approach to Nine Zero; revelations by the death row convict Saulat Mirza, implicating Altaf Hussain in the murder that Mirza had committed in 1999 and the meeting between interior minister Chaudhry Nisar and the British High Commissioner regarding Altaf Hussain. These events created the impression among MQM’s detractors that the Altaf spell had been broken and the byelection would be MQM’s swan song.
The only silver lining was provided by a detailed report in the Dawn. It ag agave a picture of the topography of th the constituency where rich people liv live on one side of the Shahrah-aPa Pakistan in large houses on plots of la land ranging from 600 to 2,000 sq, ya yard, while the poorer people live on th the other on their 120 sq. yard plots. Th These people comprising artisans, mechanics, hawkers, peddlers and smallm shopkeepers are the bulk of MQM voters. The report described how eacha party canvassed votes and, more im importantly, reproduced the response of the voters to queries about their pr preference.
The report led to the only co conclusion that MQM remained in re regular contact with its voters, helping so solve their day-to-day problems. The Ja Jamaat e Islami is an ideological party. Bu But it forgets that empty stomachs need food and parched throats, water instead of ideology, Arranging for a water tanker for a locality that is going without water would have greater and more enduring impact on the people than the news that the Imam of Ka’ba led a prayer at Mansura.
Imran Khan, blissfully unaware of the ground realities, imagined that the people of Karachi as a whole and of NA-246 particularly, were groaning under Altaf Hussain’s bondage and crying for a Godot to come and set them free. But, if he was the knight on a silver charger coming to their rescue, insulting them as he did was not in order.
The kaptaan called the mass of humanity that attends Altaf Hussain’s telephonic addresses, “zinda lashein” (live corpses, zombies). He considered television theatrics as a substitute for local electioneering and that D. J. Butt’s music would drive the voters in hordes to vote for the PTI. Nor did the PTI try to dispel the perception that it had ‘establishment’ support. It rather tried to reinforce the impression, when its candidate Imran Ismail declared that he would hold an election rally at the Jinnah Ground, which is the quasipermanent venue for MQM workers to assemble to hear Altaf Hussain’s telephonic speeches. He even visited the venue with a large contingent of police and rangers in tow. That decision was a challenge to the MQM and an invitation to a face off.
The Kaptaan had calculated on MQM’s violent opposition to the proposed meeting, which would attract the rangers’ fury in a big way. In consequence MQM’s election arrangement would be disrupted and PTI would romp home.
But Altaf Hussain, who is otherwise known - and critiqued- for his bellicose reaction in such situations, took the air out of the PTI balloon, by adopting an amazingly soft attitude, asking his men to welcome the PTI at the Jinnah Ground, facilitate their meeting and avoid confrontation.
Ultimately, the people spoke. And when they did, the prophets of doom were stunned. Even those observers, who had grudgingly conceded that though MQM might win but the margin of votes would not be as large as before, were proved wrong. MQM’s Kunwar Nawaid Jamil polled 95,644 votes, whereas PTI’s Imran Ismail secured 24,821 and JI’s Rashid Naseem, only 9,056. The result showed that concerted efforts by anti-MQM and anti-Altaf elements had failed to make any dent in either the MQM’s popularity among its voters or in the love of Altaf Hussain among his supporters.
The MQM mystique has intrigued many observers and frustrated its rivals and critics. First, it comprises largely of the lower middle and poor class. In a country where politics is regarded as a pastime exclusively for the rich, candidates from other parties are chagrined to find that MQM nominees often cannot afford the expenses of an election campaign. Second, it has been noted for winning elections by fantastic margins running into tens of thousands of votes. But, instead of trying to explore the reason for such mass support, the tendency even among the highly educated class has been to attribute it to the strong arm tactics of the party workers that kept the voters in the area under perpetual fear.
Amazingly even Imran Khan, a bright man, succumbed to such ludicrous notions when he declared that MQM drives people to its public meetings at gunpoint; a baseless charge that MQM’s Faisal Sabzwari rubbished by pointing to the huge mass of people at MQM’s meeting and asking, “Where are the guns?”
Nonetheless, there is no gainsaying that in its euphoric early days the MQM cadres went on rampage displaying their muscle power and indulging in extortion. That perception fuelled by rival propaganda continues to stick to MQM, in spite of the fact that it has received severe hammerings from the establishment and the government over the years and it continues till today as evidenced in the Rangers’ latest raid on Nine Zero.
However, the NA-246 result has shown that, one, the MQM’s vote bank and Altaf Hussain’s popularity are intact, two, that MQM is the only party that represents the Muhajirs and, three, that a welcome change has occurred in AH’s attitude towards his rivals, which he should build upon to shed MQM’s negative image.
The writer is a senior political analyst and former editor of Southasia.
The MQM mystique has intrigued many observers and frustrated its rivals and critics.