Does Karachi belong to Imran Khan?
Ever since Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan announced his intention to contest elections from Karachi, there has been rigorous debate on whether this is the right decision or not, and whether he actually has a shot at winning. Only time will tell if Imran can conquer Karachi or not. Nevertheless, this decision is a strong political move for the PTI, which is why the party should try to bolster its electability in the city before the upcoming general elections.
The effect of Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification has undoubtedly subsided, mainly due to our voting class suffering from short-term memory loss. In any other country, a disqualified leader like Nawaz would not even secure 100 votes from any constituency. In Pakistani politics, however, Nawaz has been successful in pitching the narrative that he is a cornered tiger who will return again to serve the people of Pakistan. Perhaps, given Pakistan’s political situation, Imran needs to build a similar “filmy” narrative.
Despite being 100% accurate when it comes to the corruption entrenched in the Sharif dynasty, Imran still has not been able to significantly break into their vote bank. The way the Sharif brothers have deeply poisoned the bureaucracy and state machinery, it appears the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) will find its way back into power in the upcoming election. Without proper electoral reforms barring corrupt officials, it doesn’t seem likely for more members of the PML-N to jump ship anytime soon.
Thus, to start with, Imran needs to build on the narrative promoting him as a national leader, and for this purpose, the decision to contest from Karachi is wise. Nevertheless, this will be merely symbolic if additional steps are not taken alongside the decision. If we recall, when Zufiqar Ali Bhutto decided to enter the domain of Punjab, he mobilised some key figures in the province, such as Ghulam Mustafa Khar. In Imran’s case, he needs to mobilise more powerful figures in Sindh, because rural Sindh – bound by old roots responsible for the state it is in – has not, and will not vote on pure rationale.
For Karachi, both the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have failed to solve the city’s problems, and its people are in search of an alternative. In the political vacuum created, the PTI has not been able to carve its space yet, due to displaying a lack of understanding when it comes to Karachi’s problems. Despite being an economic hub, Karachi easily seems underdeveloped when compared to Lahore and Islamabad. The water issue, for instance, is growing worse in Karachi by the day, and seeing Imran and his party take up such issues and provide workable solutions for the future of the city will go a long way to build their vote bank.
Furthermore, Imran also needs to display an understanding of the city’s ethnic dynamics. It is important the Urdu speaking community relate to him, and in this endeavour, mere anti-Nawaz rhetoric will not suffice. For years, this community has relied on the MQM for representation and the solution to their problems. Though I am not in favour of the MQM, one has to admit they were rather well organised when it came to running the city. The people of Karachi are now used to the unit system set up by the MQM, and the areas where the party still has a stronghold should be the ones Imran focuses on.
If the people of Karachi ever pinned their hopes on Imran, it was during the 2013 election, when the fear of MQM was at its peak and Altaf Hussain was commanding the reigns of the city. Since then, however, the scenario has changed almost entirely. Given the current state of the MQM, the community is now in need of a party for representation. Altaf is now a part of history, the MQM is split, and there is another contender in the market in the form of the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP). Nonetheless, the people who previously voted for MQM still only look to those party workers as fit to represent their grievances.
As Imran focuses on his electability in Punjab to win the next election, he should do the same in Karachi in order to build his base, especially by targeting voters of the MQM. It may not be an easy task, but with the local PTI leadership having friendly ties with individuals like Faisal Subzwari, it will surely not be impossible. With increasing divisions in the MQM, and given their abysmal performance in the senate elections, the possibility of Imran unifying the “good” elements of MQM does not seem farfetched.
In an attempt to address more of Karachi’s issues, it is also necessary for Imran to gather support from the powerful trading community. One possible option could be to sign a resolution in which all the traders show confidence in Imran, and agree that if he ever comes into power from Karachi, the PTI will ensure no “bhatta” or extortion is allowed in the city. This has been a major issue in Karachi during the many decades spent under the MQM, with traders, fearing for their lives, paying the sum demanded. A commitment on this issue from the PTI will prove they are serious about the future of Karachi and protecting its citizens from harm.
Lastly, the recent jab made by Bilawal Bhutto, likening Imran to Altaf, indicates the PPP will be deploying the ‘Taliban’ card on Imran in the coming elections. Given the difference in ideology of both parties, Imran will have to lean more towards the left-wing if he is to achieve success in Karachi. Everyone is aware of how poorly right-wing parties, such as Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), have performed in Karachi, mainly because its people are generally more progressive and liberal. The upscale areas, Defence and Clifton in particular, are more of a PPP stronghold, and completely different from the MQM areas. Thus, changing his tone and reclaiming the urban crowd (which he has lost since the 2013 elections), will be necessary if Imran is to win Karachi.
The Karachi of the 70s can be remembered as the Paris of South Asia, as people came here from all over the globe to enjoy its modern festivities and educational advancements. The politics of a certain party may have darkened Karachi, but in the vacuum which exists today, Imran’s win could bring back the nostalgia people associate with the “City of Lights”.
If Imran starts a campaign promising to revive Karachi and bring back the city of old, this vision of a modern and developed Karachi will surely appeal to the entire city, including the elite. However, to win Karachi, the PTI will need a dedicated team and a solid campaign more than anything. True youth empowerment, like the tsunami he promised years ago, where big names are overshadowed by a massive city-wide movement, is the need of the hour. This is essential to revolutionise Karachi and ensure a win for Imran and his PTI, particularly because the 2018 elections could truly deliver the change he promised years ago.