Tipping point in Karachi
EITHER we are approaching some sort of tipping point in the city, or the theatre is about to get a little more absurd. Until the resignations given by the MQM are formally accepted by the speaker of the Assembly and chairman Senate, we will have a situation where there is a parliament of 342 members with 56 having submitted their resignations.
How long can they keep going like this? And how many more resignations will come before the next general elections? In any case, there is palpable fear in the business community in Karachi, particularly amongst manufacturers who fear that a time of great uncertainty is coming. What exactly is the MQM's game here, people are asking. Have they resigned as a sign of weakness, to signal to the establishment that they are willing to withdraw from the game in return for some assurance that they will not be targeted any more? Or are they gearing up to fight back in the streets?
If it is the former, we would probably not have seen the kind of combative rhetoric like we saw coming from Farooq Sattar's press conference outside the National Assembly. We also would not have heard Altaf Hussain tell Hamid Mir that the country has to choose, "who is going to be on top, parliament or the military?" Are we looking at a potential return to the bad old days?
But if this is gearing up for a fight, what exactly does that mean? Are we looking at a potential return to the bad old days? This option sounds a bit unrealistic today; the MQM is not what it used to be.
If the government accepts the resignations eventually, it sets the stage for a by-election. Once again, Altaf Hussain evaded the question about whether or not his party will contest the by-polls when asked point blank, which appears to show there is room for flexibility at this point.
But if the by-polls go ahead, and the MQM boycotts - which it will almost have to in order to avoid looking silly because what is the point of resigning one day only to run in the by-polls the next - that sets the stage for new entrants, particularly the PTI to field their candidates from core constituencies and win, even if through very small turnouts.
The new entrants could well be the PTI, which would not help the ruling party very much. So there ought to be a built-in incentive for the PML-N to find a way to keep the MQM members from walking away from the political process. In days to come, we'll see how they balance this.
These questions are going through the minds of Karachi's business community as they contemplate the impact the resignations could have on the city's peace, and eventually on their capacity to keep their factories running and shipments moving.
Many amongst them feel the MQM today is less inclined to disturb the peace of the city as a way to score political points. The number of strike calls issued by the party has diminished rapidly, they point out, and the call given for Monday was withdrawn, most likely after indications that it will be difficult for the party to enforce.
The party's will and capacity to force shutters to come down and public transport to stay off the roads appears to be severely eroded.
The standoff is likely to drag out for a little while longer as the government mounts efforts to persuade the MNAs and senators to change their minds. The Sindh Assembly is a slightly different story, but it is also unlikely to follow a course different from the National Assembly.
If the MQM is planning to stand by its decision, then it has some thinking to do. How will it remain relevant from outside the political mainstream? Taking the fight to the streets will have disastrous consequences for the millions of livelihoods in the city that depend on the smooth conduct of day-to-day business, and Karachi is a city that works day to day.
The step is likely to alienate the party further from the city's residents, and bottle up the sources of its support to a few constituencies where it enjoys a comehell-or-high-water level of support.
This would be political suicide. There are still too many days left between now and the next general elections, and whereas the party successfully made a comeback in the 1997 elections after boycotting the 1993 polls, it's own leadership remembers well how difficult it was to survive in the political wilderness in between.
Karachi also took a severe beating in those days, and much investment preferred to move upcountry rather than take up stakes in a volatile environment created by the political uncertainty and the fighting in the streets.
Most likely the party will trade in the withdrawal of its resignations against an assurance that the angry harangues and threatening language directed against it by some members of the ruling party be ended.
Pushing ahead with the resignations does not serve the interests of the MQM or the ruling party. The political stars are aligned to produce some sort of compromise, so if they intend to stand by their decision, they will have to swim against the tide of political common sense.
But if the intention is to go for fighting in the streets, then what exactly would the objective be in such a scenario? Shut down the economic lifeline of the city and engage in tit for tat killings until your own cadres stop being apprehended? How high would the spiral of violence need to go to achieve that objective?
Let's hope better sense prevails and this gets defused quickly. Whatever may be people's opinions of the party, it is a political fact in our country and should not be pushed out of the picture with force.