Karachi: 21m people, 0 leaders

Post-Altaf confusion will lead to loss of mandate, under-representation

Karachi: 21m people, 0 leaders
Karachi’s politics is falling deeper into chaos and uncertainty with every passing day. It received its latest jolt in the shocking results of the Senate elections last week. This is only a continuation of the deterioration that was triggered by Altaf Hussain’s erratic behavior last year, which ultimately resulted in the disintegration of his party into several squabbling factions. Anyone who understood how the MQM functioned under Altaf could have easily predicted this outcome.
The city's mandate is divided in so many ways that a consolidation seems unlikely in the near future

Over the last four decades, Altaf Hussain had systematically nurtured a direct connection with his voters and lower-tier party workers at the expense of the mid-tier leadership. He deliberately ridiculed, weakened and rotated the secondary leadership of the party to forestall any challenges to his person from within the ranks. As a result, none of the party’s leaders, including Farooq Sattar, could develop any following of their own or be recognized as heirs to Altaf’s vote-bank. The ensuing fiasco after Altaf’s ouster by the Establishment could have been avoided had party leaders understood their position and come to a working solution. Measures such as transparent intra-party elections or an agreement on the clear division of responsibilities between Farooq Sattar and the Rabita Committee could have solved the problem to a large extent. However, the pettiness shown from all sides in dealing with the crisis proved that none of the office-bearers possessed the leadership qualities, patience, or wisdom required to take the party forward.

The people of Karachi, of course, are the ultimate losers in all this. The city’s mandate is divided in so many ways that a consolidation seems unlikely in the near future. The confusion is so palpable that no predictions can be made about the 2018 elections. As the situation currently stands, the low-income Urdu-speaking voter is still deeply loyal to Altaf Hussain, but the Establishment will not allow them to vote for him. On the other hand, Farooq Sattar and the Rabita Committee are so divided that this voter would not know whom to choose as a second option. In the meanwhile, Mustafa Kamal, the Establishment’s candidate, has failed miserably in drawing any MQM voters to his party.

Karachi’s middle and upper-middle class Urdu-speaking voter is also confused. It does not want to vote for any of the MQM factions—but has no other viable choice either. In 2013, a large chunk of these votes went to Imran Khan’s PTI, which miserably failed in taking advantage of this low-hanging fruit. If Imran Khan had been wise enough to capitalize on this support, his party could have emerged as an alternate to MQM in the 2018 elections.

Added to this mix is the deep ethnic divisions in Karachi. The Pukhtun form the second largest linguistic group in the city, but whether they will vote for the PTI or the ANP in the upcoming elections is anyone’s guess. The PPP seems to have reconstructed its support in Lyari after the Uzair Baloch episode, and is likely to benefit from the division in Urdu-speaking votes in several constituencies of the city with sizable Sindhi and Baloch populations. Even the PML-N can bag a few seats from the Punjabi-concentrated areas of the city due to the divide. Overall, it seems that none of the political parties and MQM factions would be able to provide clear leadership to the city.
If Imran Khan had been wise enough to capitalize on this support, his party could have emerged as an alternate to MQM in the 2018 elections

Why is this a problem? First, Karachi will lose its collective bargaining power against other competing entities such as rural Sindh and Punjab, which are likely to be represented by a single leadership. This means less funds and development for the city. Second, Karachi’s youth will increasingly feel alienated from the electoral process. With all its flaws, the MQM provided an anchor for young people of the city to engage in politics and focus their energies toward party activities. A lack of options for these young people to channel their energies could spell disaster for everyone. There is already a severe lack of sporting or recreational avenues for them and a disintegrated MQM could result in young people losing their orientation and engaging in socially undesirable activities. The fragile peace maintained by the Rangers through force could be undone with disastrous consequences if this issue is not fixed soon.

What is in store for future? In the short-run, a lot of confusion. It might take at least two full election cycles before the city could come at terms with reality. The fact is that Karachi cannot afford to continue banking on ethnic politics any longer. Changing demographics and rapid upward mobility within the Urdu-speaking community demand inclusionary politics. The city will have to reconcile its differences with the rest of the country and enter into mainstream politics in order to prosper. This partially depends on how political parties such as the PML-N, PTI, and PPP engage with the city’s electorate. Any party that is ready to invest resources and share leadership with its residents has a fair chance of gaining a new constituency within a decade. Until that happens, Karachi will continue to survive without a mandate and stability.

The writer is Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Cleveland State University. He can be reached at obedpasha@gmail.com. His twitter handle is @RamblingSufi