Originally Published 2011-08-17 00:00:00 Published on Aug 17, 2011
The ongoing political oscillation in Karachi reflects structural impediments that a country with a weak state and strong society has to face. It underlines the problems that politicians face due to strong kinship.
Karachi: Reading between the lines
The ongoing political oscillation in Karachi reflects structural impediments that a country with a weak state and strong society has to face. It underlines the problems strong kinship or biradari linkages, that bind the imagination and operational freedom to the ambit of their respective communities, create for politicians. Typical of South Asian societies, biradari is crucial not only for gaining political legitimacy, but also for mobilising people by maintaining a well-oiled patronage system that ensures committed vote-banks.

Such a feudal system ends up creating small ethno-fascist republics within a larger political setup, which might undermine any democracy. To maintain autonomy and exercise power, these groups have well-armed ’strongmen’, who help in consolidating the territory. As a result, tremendous friction is generated when elements of these ethno-fascist republics arrive at a crossroads in a city that is also the financial lifeline of Pakistan. A closer look at the political drama in Karachi shows that there are various layers to the issue and it is not simply a case of a power struggle.

Let’s start backwards. At the beginning of this month, after weeks of political seesawing and violence, Altaf Hussain, leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) asked for military intervention to restore peace in Karachi. Apparently, even the MQM, well known for supporting gang violence and its tactics of political blackmail, needed a breather. The installation of the Commissionerate System and the Police Act of 1861 by the PPP in July had incensed the MQM, as this would have allowed the PPP to exercise absolute control over the levers of administration in Karachi. Instead of being run like a single administrative unit, the Commissionerate System would have divided Karachi into five districts i.e. Karachi West, Karachi East, Karachi South, Karachi Central, and Malir. Deputy commissioners would then run these districts, while commissioners would be appointed to administer the functioning of different divisions i.e. a sub-provincial level of government in Sindh. Interestingly, the appointment of both the commissioners and the deputy commissioners lay in hands of the provincial and federal government. As a result, the previous system i.e. the Local Governance Ordinance (or the LG system) of district Nazims (Mayors) being responsible to elected local officials was abolished in favour of a system that would permit federal bureaucrats from the powerful District Management Group (DMG), an elite cadre of the civil service of Pakistan, to have authority to run districts. All this basically meant that the PPP would have been able to appoint its own people in Karachi directly from Islamabad and would have given the PPP absolute control over the running of Karachi.

This was a mortal blow for the MQM primarily because the LG system gave local elected representatives a higher degree of autonomy to run the city as a single unit without much interference from the provincial government. The imposition of the Commissionerate system over the LG system thus meant that despite holding 40 out of 47 seats in the Sindh assembly, MQM would have had little influence over Karachi and Sindh. Therefore, while the modus operandi of Sindh using the LG system suited the requirements of the MQM, the Commissionerate System suited the PPP. 

Interestingly, in addition to calling in the army, Hussain also asked Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh if India has "a heart big enough to take back five crore (fifty million) Mohajirs," in the event that Pakistan launched an "ethnic cleansing" campaign against the community. Mohajirs are migrants who moved to Pakistan from India during partition. Despite the cynicism, these statements do reflect the contradictions in the MQM. While on the one hand it is a cadre-based party (although Hussain takes most decisions) that enjoys tremendous influence in Karachi, it is highly insecure not only regarding remaining in power but also about its identity and place in the Pakistani society. The MQM’s fear of the Pakistani state launching a "cleansing" campaign against the Mohajir community, or maybe just against the cadre of the MQM, is not without basis.

In 1992 the Pakistani Army launched an operation, codenamed "Clean-Up," against the MQM. The objective was to "cleanse" Karachi of rebellious elements, and the main target was members of the MQM (then called the Mohajir Quami Movement). The charges against the MQM were that it was attempting to form a breakaway state called Jinnahpur, which would become a homeland for the Urdu-speaking Mohajir community of Pakistan. The operation was conducted during Nawaz Sharif’s (leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)) first term as the Prime Minister of Pakistan. It was eventually to be revealed that not only were the allegations regarding the creation of Jinnahpur a fabricated story masterminded by the government of the day in order to break MQM’s control over Karachi, but also that the MQM had always had a strong commitment towards the state of Pakistan. Considered as the bloodiest period in the history of Karachi, Operation Clean-Up left a deep scar on the collective psyche of the MQM cadre as well as the whole of Mohajir community.

The lack of biradari connections within Pakistan coupled with their strong economic base has kept the Mohajirs isolated as a community, from other ethnic groups. As a result, despite its potential and the requirement to build a support base outside the urban centres of Sindh and become active at the national level, MQM remains tied down to Karachi and Hyderabad. This leaves it with little option but to do the waltz that a regional party needs to do if it wants to survive in Pakistan. In such a scenario, a call for asylum in India only reflects how deeply embedded the issue of identity, with its roots in kinship networks, is in Pakistani society and politics. It also shows that there is no running away from the biradari system, even if the Mohajirs have no such roots within present day Pakistan.

Secondly, while the implementation of the Commisionerate System threatened the interests of the MQM, the party maintained an uncanny silence when it was subsequently repealed only from Karachi and Hyderabad earlier this month (to restore the previous LG system that restores the district Nazims). As it has a negligible presence in the rural areas of Sindh, the MQM didn’t bother about the system of administration in these regions and did not ask for reinforcement of the LG system throughout the province. This is more than a simple political deal between the PPP and the MQM, to call for a truce. It  reflects the inward-looking tendency in MQM to ensure political survival, and use state tools to keep its rivals like the Awami National Party (which represents the Pashtuns who migrated to Karachi from the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), and Sindhi nationalists in check by using the police and other state tools against them. Not surprisingly, the ANP and the Sindh National Front (SNF) strongly protested at the reinstatement of the LG system, blaming the PPP not only for bowing down to pressure from the MQM but also attempting to divide the province along ethnic lines. 

However, there is another nuance to this. The LG system helps the MQM consolidate its party cadre and criminal confederates of Karachi within the ambit of its leadership by keeping the patronage flowing. It is fairly well known that regardless of being a cadre-based party, Hussain and his loyalists essentially run the MQM like an oligarchy. As a result, the LG system suits the MQM, not only to maintain control over the administration of Karachi, but also to keep its patronage machinery intact. For this purpose it appoints officials in municipal bodies as well as police officers at strategic locations who fit their political agendas. An overhaul of the administrative system undermines the MQM’s control over the levers of state and subsequently disrupts the flow of political patronage.

Thirdly, even the PPP, which is a national party and forms the government in Sindh, has displayed little maturity in Karachi. Driven by calculations for the upcoming 2013 general elections, the PPP took a series of impulsive decisions that have only made the situation worse. Firstly, it made administrative changes after a split with the MQM over a couple of seats in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, and then PM Gilani and President Zardari gave statements to the effect that the PPP doesn’t really need the MQM. All this was followed by a spate of violence that killed many civilians, leading the PPP to revert back to the LG system in the urban centres of Sindh. The LG system could be implemented in the whole of Sindh only after intense protests from the ANP and SNF who felt insecure in a MQM dominated Karachi.

Now, why was the LG system initially restricted to the urban centres and not the rural areas of Sindh? The catch in this case, once again, is the inner composition of the PPP. With the Bhutto family at its centre, the PPP resembles a large empire run by a family which inspires loyalty from other influential families of Pakistan. Although these other family units can break off from the Bhuttos and join some other party, or form one for themselves, they form the building blocks of the PPP. Given the societal compulsions of Pakistan, the Bhuttos are expected to provide patronage to other families in form of power sharing, and giving gifts in kind and cash. As the PPP enjoys a strong hold in the rural areas of Sindh, the Commissionerate System would have given them power to use the state machinery to generate revenues for distributing such patronage. This reinforces the importance of biradari and clientelism in Pakistani politics, and shows how even national politicians can be drawn into a narrowing of their imaginations. If the patronage flow halts, the family in power will start losing its supporters that form the core of their vote-banks. The reinstatement of the LG system to the whole of Sindh was more of a tactic to pacify an ANP that otherwise has proved to be a stable coalition partner and helpful in quelling Pashtun separatism in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the politically sensitive province along Pakistan’s border close to Afghanistan.

Therefore, the tribal or biradari linkages restrict both regional and national political parties from thinking beyond the ambit of their own community and political interests. If they attempt to think beyond these red lines of kinship i.e. from a purely national perspective and for the betterment of the people of Pakistan, they might be jeopardising their political support base in the short run. A conscious move away from this structural setup, on the flip side, might bring about some fundamental changes in the polity of Pakistan. Unfortunately, even after the killing of innocent civilians, that include children, the political parties refuse to wake up.

(The author is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, and a doctoral candidate at the King’s College, London)
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