Who Rules Karachi?

The MQM’s vote bank re­mains in­tact but is it ready for the change?

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By S.G. Ji­la­nee

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.

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