Tip­ping point in Karachi

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Khur­ram Husain

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.

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