Karachi’s misfortune

The next decade will be tough amid a vacuum in political leadership

Karachi’s misfortune
Cities are the future of humanity where over 66 percent of us are projected to dwell by 2050. Accommodating such large-scale influx into urban centers would require extraordinary planning and management, which is problematic for developing countries such as Pakistan with limited resources and weak infrastructure. Issues of urban sprawl in cities like Karachi are further complicated by ethno-religious diversity and lack of political ownership. These problems extend to other cities such as Hyderabad, Sukkur, and Mirpurkhas in Sindh, which are seeing a similar expansion in population, putting pressure on their resources and aggravating an already hostile political environment grounded in ethnic populism.

Large cities in other parts of the country such as Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Peshawar are fortunate enough to share the ethnic composition of the provinces they are located in, and thus attracted ample political and fiscal attention to sustain their development. Urban and rural Sindh, on the other hand, offer stark differences in ethnic make-up, leading to separate parties controlling the province and the cities. The fact that the political party which was patronized by urban Sindh is militant in nature and led by a mercurial narcissist ensured that Karachi and other cities of Sindh remain in constant unrest. MQM has been at loggerheads with all provincial and federal government over the last four decades, except for Pervez Musharraf’s nine-year rule.

Even amid such turmoil, the voting population of Karachi remained thoroughly loyal to MQM due to its populism and mass appeal. The party provided a voice to the city’s poor, offered access to power to disenfranchised youth, and bargained for resources on the city’s behalf. In recent years, however, Karachi’s residents have been deprived of these services as the party which kept the urban Sindh united has now itself disintegrated into multiple factions. As the situation currently stands, Mustafa Kamal’s Pak-Sarzameen Party, MQM-Pakistan, MQM-Altaf and MQM-Haqiqi are all contesting for the same turf which was once exclusively held by Altaf Hussain.
The MQM's future in the city is in serious jeopardy, and even it does survive, the party will become
a much weaker version of itself

The establishment has succeeded in breaking the party into several factions and keeping Altaf from taking part in politics, but it has failed to dissuade the masses from voting for him. Keeping the various MQM factions intact is also getting increasingly difficult as Farooq Sattar is losing his grip over MQM-Pakistan and none of the other leaders seem to be interested in collaborating with Mustafa Kamal and his followers. This situation makes the 2018 elections exceedingly uncertain since voters devoted to Altaf will be forced to choose between two loosely held factions rife with bickering and distrust.

Another complicating factor in Karachi’s politics is the massive influx of Pushtuns in the city, mostly those who fled terrorism and military operations in the tribal areas. Added to the constant stream of economic migrants from all over Pakistan, Karachi’s demographics now consist of a sizable non-Mohajir vote-bank. Saeed Ghani’s victory in the PP-114 by-elections on a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) ticket last July demonstrates how a strong candidate can unite the anti-MQM vote bank to win elections. Several constituencies in Karachi, especially in its industrial and suburban zones, will be now open for new actors due to the weakening of the MQM. The resulting division of seats between individuals and parties will significantly hamper the collective bargaining power of urban Sindh.

The MQM’s future in the city is in serious jeopardy, and even it does survive, the party will become a much weaker version of itself. The citizens of Karachi and urban Sindh should realize that they have made a grave strategic error by opting for specialized ethno-centric politics. They are now finding themselves isolated without allies in provincial and federal governments. Other political parties like the PMLN and PPP have not forgotten how the MQM allied with Pervez Musharraf instead of democratic forces, and are not ready to offer a helping hand.

MQM-Altaf, with is characteristic aggressiveness, overplayed Karachi’s position as the major port and economic hub of the country. The party’s militarism gave the opportunity to the military establishment to take control of the city’s affairs, forcing the MQM cadres to distance themselves from Altaf and follow the deep state’s interests. Political leadership of the city should understand that Karachi draws its importance from the rest of Pakistan (especially central Punjab), which consumes and produces the goods imported and exported through its ports. Instead of setting up an adversarial position against the province and federation, Karachi should establish partnerships and facilitate business interests from all parts of the country.

Such vision, however, comes from strong leadership, which the city currently lacks. Moreover, infighting within the MQM and changing demographics of the city portend instability for years to come, if not decades. The current vacuum in the city can be filled by a political party of national stature like the PMLN, PPP, or PTI, but none seem to be interested in stepping up to the task.

The PTI had the golden opportunity after gaining sizable votes in 2013, which it has now lost due to neglect. Imran Khan’s shortsightedness and obsession with Punjab cost him a potential victory over Karachi. The PPP’s nine-year rule over the province has proved to Karachiites that the party is either grossly incompetent or completely uninterested in tending to the city’s needs. PMLN’s politics in Karachi is lazy and relies on electables such as Abdul Hakeem Baloch who freely switch political allegiances. Probably it is too busy fighting its own battles in Punjab to engage in new ventures.

While the city desperately needs allies in the province and the center, its misfortune is likely to persist for at least another couple of election cycles. The electorate needs time to move away from ethno-centric politics and realize the benefits of mainstream inclusive politics. The next decade will be tough for the city.

Obed Pasha is lecturer of Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He can be reached at obedpasha@gmail.com or @ramblingsufi