Forever Qaim

Published: July 26, 2016
Qaim Ali Shah is a vegetarian, wears locally-stitched suits, walks frequently and never raises his voice. PHOTO: INP

Qaim Ali Shah is a vegetarian, wears locally-stitched suits, walks frequently and never raises his voice. PHOTO: INP

When it comes to Pakistani politics, few would deny that Qaim Ali Shah stands in a league of his own. With 56 years of political experience, no Pakistani politician comes close to matching Qaim Ali Shah’s record. Although there are many who criticise his tenure as Sindh chief minister, fans and critics alike could benefit from learning more about this elusive, polite politician.

In the 1960s, at around the start of his political career, Qaim was well known as a lawyer in his home district of Khairpur Mirs. As a Jilani Syed, that was a somewhat non-traditional career path for Qaim. Family members remember haris, kisans and mazdoors crowding the little autak at Jilani House long after office hours for Qaim’s help with their legal disputes. His financial cushion, or what some family members call his charitable spirit, allowed him to fight their cases for free.

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Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s role in his transition to politics was considerable. At Karachi’s SM Law College, Qaim, Bhutto’s devoted pupil, was greatly inspired by his teacher. Qaim’s friends recall how that period helped forge a relationship that would last Bhutto’s life and beyond.

Officially, Qaim started politics by supporting Fatima Jinnah’s presidential campaign against Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Later, he was elected vice chairman of Khairpur city as part of Ayub’s Basic Democracy system.

When Bhutto called for the formation of the PPP in 1967, Qaim responded shortly after, joining ranks with founding members of the party. Qaim contested Pakistan’s first universal adult suffrage elections in 1970 on a PPP ticket, winning the MNA seat from Khairpur Mirs.

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Recognising his capabilities and popularity, Bhutto appointed Qaim to his cabinet first as senior minister in Sindh, with eight portfolios, including law, parliamentary affairs and revenue. In that capacity, Qaim helped Hafeez Pirzada and others draft Pakistan’s current 1973 Constitution. Later, in 1974-75, Bhutto appointed Qaim as federal minister for Industries, Agrarian Management, Kashmir and Northern Affairs. Considering that industries, agriculture and Kashmir affairs were central to his agenda, Bhutto appointed Qaim trusting his loyalty, moderate temperament and appeal among workers.

In a cabinet otherwise composed of landlords or academics, Qaim was a notable exception. Despite his zameendari background and strong academic record, Qaim stood apart because of his ability to build a rapport with those less privileged. Close observers of Qaim’s politics would do well to note that the compassion, humility and loyalty that helped propel him to office then, have also helped him sustain his long career in politics.

With the fall of Bhutto’s government in 1979, General Zia’s regime imprisoned Qaim along with other ministers and party members.

While many PPP ‘uncles’ — Ghulam Mustafa Khar, Makhdoom Khaliquz Zaman, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi and others – left the party, ratted on Benazir and Nusrat Bhutto or became inactive, Qaim stood steadfastly by the party, refusing to budge an inch or testify against the Bhuttos.

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Qaim spent the 11 years of General Zia’s rule either in prison or underground. When not in prison or a torture cell, Qaim was writing articles at Mir Asghar’s place, surreptitiously organising the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) from Dr Sabir Shah’s home or taking telephonic instructions from Benazir at Jalbani sahab’s home.

As dark as General Zia’s reign was for Pakistan, it was darker still for Qaim, his family, and families of other MRD workers. With family accounts frozen and lands occupied by Gen Zia-supporting tenants, Qaim’s wife, Husn Afroze, sister of the renowned Sindhi lawyer AK Brohi, died because of lack of funds for advanced cancer treatment. His nephew, Pervaiz Ali Shah, who was imprisoned along with him, endured six years of torture in General Zia’s torture cells, attaining ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ status in Amnesty International’s 1985 report. Qaim’s children went to school at St Joseph’s Convent in Karachi on the virtual charity of nuns and family friends.

If Qaim had been made of a substance that bent, or was corruptible, he surely would have given up in those 11 years, if not for himself, than for his children, but he did not. As political commentators sometimes correctly note: Qaim Ali Shah is loyal, almost to a fault, and at times more than is good for him.

With General Zia’s death and Benazir’s return to power in 1988, Qaim was among the only uncles whom Benazir trusted. Following his victory from Khairpur Mirs, he was elected as Sindh’s chief minister during the brief of tenure of Benazir’s first government. Although he stepped down slightly before the end of her tenure, Qaim has confirmed on public record that his ouster was part of a plan to topple Benazir’s first government. During Benazir’s second government, Bilawal House preferred having Abdullah Shah, the more pliant, less questioning, other Shah, elected as Sindh chief ninister. History knows well how excellent Abdullah Shah’s tenure was for the PPP and the Bhuttos.

Benazir needed Qaim back at her side in 1996. In the only available footage of Murtaza Bhutto’s funeral, Qaim and Nusrat Bhutto flank Benazir. After the PPP’s overall routing in the 1997 elections, Qaim returned for a brief tenure in the capital as a senator.

Following General Musharraf’s 2002 elections, Qaim reclaimed the Khairpur MPA seat and returned to his Sindhi political base. At that time, when several PPP members, notably the Legharis and at least one Jilani, crossed the floor to help General Musharraf, again, Qaim stood squarely by the PPP. He did so despite the PPP’s failing to complete a single term in the 1990s.

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The PPP’s eventual victory in 2008 propelled Qaim back to the helm of affairs. His affable temperament, politeness, humility, non-reactionary politics, rapport with PPP stalwarts, and ability to take along politicians of various stripes and colours helped the PPP survive its term in office. Nevertheless, that period was not without tensions. Even with his general affability, Qaim found it hard to accept some orders, especially those that came from front men, non-PPP stalwarts and a certain politician’s brother-in-name.

Although critics may rightly criticise the PPP’s first term in office for several shortcomings in governance, savvy commentators know well that mere survival of a PPP-led government in Sindh and Pakistan is a feat unto itself. Considering its history, repairing ties with the MQM and the establishment require extraordinary trust-building exercises and concessions, none of which are conducive to particularly effective governance, of course.

Having done some things right, Qaim Ali Shah led the PPP to secure a landslide majority in Sindh in the 2013 elections, with the party securing an unparalleled clear majority in the Sindh Assembly. For the first time since 1976, a sitting PPP chief minister led the party to victory. He did so even though the PPP leadership was unable to campaign for security reasons and the party was routed in other provinces.

For his second term, critics may correctly cite the lack of Shahbaz Sharif-style, iron-fisted governance, general inertia, and even more general, sometimes comical, sometimes pity warranting, bumbling along. Savvy students of Sindh politics, however, know well the difficulties involved in dealing with multiple stakeholders and taking along a party marred by internal leadership struggles. Sindh is not Punjab, any more than it is Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan. While this is no defence of governance shortcomings, this is a political account of the intricacies involved in surviving amidst parallel governments, external control and limited manoeuvring space.

That Qaim survived eight consecutive years as an elected chief minister from the PPP is something of a feat in itself. That he won every election he contested between 1960 and now, with the exception of 1997, is again, an uncommon accomplishment for a Pakistani politician. Most significantly, he managed to have a career spanning 56 years without any accusation of corruption in a country where politicians are otherwise dogged by corruption scandals.

Those who know Qaim, know him to be a simple, calm man of few words.

To recall what is now a running joke, as reported by a bureaucrat: President Zardari once asked Qaim Ali Shah about his watch, commenting that he had seen Qaim wearing that worthless watch for as long as he could remember.

“Why don’t you buy a better watch?” President Zardari asked Qaim in front of bureaucrats and others present. Qaim replied, “It tells the time as good as any other Mr President.”

That then, is Qaim Ali Shah. He owns no expensive watches, wears locally stitched shalwar kameez and suits, does not know which car he owns, if any, and declined the fancy sunglasses someone once tried to gift him.

A vegetarian who enjoys Sindhi bhaji with roti, Qaim is punctual with his prayers, often praying Isha late into the night, fasts in Ramazan despite his progressing years (insisting in face of protests that he finds fasting spiritually beneficial), walks frequently, never raises his voice, entertains his children and grandchildren with the occasional joke, and takes pride in their hard work and academic accomplishment.

At 84, he remembers the names and details of workers of his party better than those of his children and grandchildren. To him, the Pakistan Peoples Party is his life, his first love, his family. Having raised it from its birth and seen it through its various triumphs and failures, Qaim looks on his party as any doting father would, sometimes happy with its accomplishments, at other times disappointed by its failures.

In all, in his consistent service to his constituency, constant electoral victories, contribution to Pakistan’s Constitution, grip over Sindhi realpolitik, avoidance of financial and other scandals, humility and loyal service, he stands apart from other politicians. When the history of Pakistan’s meandering political transition to liberal democracy is written, the avid historian would do well to record the role of Sindh’s Qaim Saeen. 

The writer is a full time faculty member at IBA Karachi and a graduate of Cambridge and Georgetown universities. She is the granddaughter of Qaim Ali Shah and tweets at @MoruShah.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 27th, 2016.

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Reader Comments (46)

  • Asad Shairani
    Jul 27, 2016 - 5:53AM

    Men who are entrusted with decisions affecting the lives of millions of people aren’t to be judged by the calmness of their tone and their austerity in private lives. They are to be judged by their ability to deliver progress, security, and a general welfare to the people. And in that criteria, Qaim Ali Shah not only failed, but failed so miserably that he makes the other failures look good.

    It is a pity that your defense of the man has little or no reference to his performance, but to his personality. It is a pity, that the self proclaimed torch bearers of democracy can only cite “party loyalty” as the sole quality of a man who ruled this province into rubbish-laden streets and chaos for 8 years. Recommend

  • Ali
    Jul 27, 2016 - 6:25AM

    Praising the corrupt and morally dead..its part of our culture. Isnt it? In his 8 years tenure, sindh has gone back to its mohanjodaro times. He is single handedly the most incompetent poltical worker, who has zero conscience and would do anything that zardari tells him. You are welcome to visit interior sind – all of it actually, and then please let us all know if you still think zia’s time was dark.Recommend

  • Uncle Tom
    Jul 27, 2016 - 9:43AM

    “Qaim Ali Shah is a vegeta­rian, walks freque­ntly and never raises his voice”

    That’s cause he is an old goat.Recommend

  • rich
    Jul 27, 2016 - 10:27AM

    truly a great man

    to be simple with such corruption all around is a mark of a great man Recommend

  • Toti calling
    Jul 27, 2016 - 10:42AM

    Thank you for this revealing piece. If anything, he remained true to his ideals. If PPP had any say in central government, he could have been appointed an Ambassador or governor if he was found too old or fragile for a very challenging job as CM at his late age. Recommend

  • Jul 27, 2016 - 10:46AM

    ET: Karachi has a different spirit and character from the rest of the country It is a meld of different peoples and cultures. And a CM who cannot be parallel to the requirements of the city and people does not hav.e the right to rule for almost nine (9) years.
    It has added to the misery and deprivation of the citizens. If he has done good, then he must continue to do good in his village where the demands for the right to live (Thar and others) is beyond human imagination. This goes for his party and PMLN too. Salams Recommend

  • A
    Jul 27, 2016 - 10:47AM

    Sounds suspiciously close to a paid blog, or even one written by Qaims relative. Which she seems like, because only a mother or a relative/siblin could have such strong love for someone as bad as Qaim Ali Shah.Recommend

  • DevilHunterX
    Jul 27, 2016 - 11:34AM

    Dear Opinion writer,

    Please google the word: Nepotism.

    Half of his family members (close and extended) are employees of the government due to his direct influence.Recommend

  • Dr. Zaidan
    Jul 27, 2016 - 11:35AM

    It is a pity that the author wishes Qaim Ali Shah to be seen in any light other than that he is one of the most incompetent administrators that Pakistan has seen in its recent history.Recommend

  • Jul 27, 2016 - 11:45AM

    Couldn’t agree more.Recommend

  • Jul 27, 2016 - 12:09PM

    @Asad Shairani:
    Succinctly put.Recommend

  • Dabby
    Jul 27, 2016 - 12:24PM


  • Muhammad Akram
    Jul 27, 2016 - 12:30PM

    Couldn’t disagree more. When someone is holding a public office he is judged by the contribution he has made in the lives of the people. If that contribution is zero the said public official is worthless and the sooner he is removed the better. Good riddance.Recommend

  • Dilawer Ali
    Jul 27, 2016 - 12:45PM

    When the writer states that the PPP uncles left the party, she should actually do a bit of analysis of history and keep her mind open to the possibility of them being asked to leave by Benazir Bhutto and Nusrat Bhutto themselves! Besides ofcourse only those who supported the ways of the new daughter of ZAB would have remained with her and not those who were loyal to her father and his policies as it’s easy to stay and comprise on what PPP stood for in the first place! And it’s strange how his granddaughter is writing an article on him on this newspaper’s website as she is definitely going to be all praise for him! Recommend

  • Pakistani
    Jul 27, 2016 - 12:51PM

    @Asad Shairani:
    Spot on Sir.Recommend

  • Pakistani
    Jul 27, 2016 - 12:54PM

    Matlab hadd hogae … NO improvement in Karachi since last 8 / 9 years shows his loyality towards PPP, wish he was a leader loyal to Pakistan, he would have left in the very beginning. Baba Bhang Shah !!!Recommend

  • nadeem
    Jul 27, 2016 - 1:04PM

    @Asad Shairani: Agree 100%. If he was well-intentioned, but was hampered by his party’s leadership, he should have resigned. The fact that he is leaving only when removed shows that he had no qualms about continuing indefinitely as the most ineffective CM of Sind, and probably thought he was doing a great job. Recommend

  • Parvez
    Jul 27, 2016 - 1:06PM

    As Qaim the man, you most probably are right….but as Qaim the politician / Chief Minister of Sindh you are dead wrong. He came across as weak, pliant and just what Sindh did not need and that most likely was why he was kept on as CM. A man with a strong character and moral uprightness would never have allowed himself to be put in the position that Qaim Ali Shah allowed himself to be put.Recommend

  • Faizan
    Jul 27, 2016 - 1:33PM

    It hurts me to see the state of Sindh in general and Karachi in particular, under maybe one of the most incompetent provincial governments ever in our history. Basically, you can describe Qaim Ali Shah in one word: spineless. Compare Karachi to cities like Lahore and Islamabad, and you will realize, we have been pushed back to the dark ages. Why is Karachi being treated worst than a stepchild? Recommend

  • N
    Jul 27, 2016 - 1:40PM

    Pathetic excuse of a government.Recommend

  • sameena
    Jul 27, 2016 - 2:26PM

    Are you saying all this, because you’re a Shah too ?Recommend

  • sameena
    Jul 27, 2016 - 2:53PM

    Are you saying this because you’re a Shah too ??Recommend

  • FAZ
    Jul 27, 2016 - 4:19PM

    As far as I have seen no body questions (or jokes rather) about his honesty. What is seriously wrong and wrong for almost a decade is his severe inability to deliver! He is a book man. Not a leader. Good riddance!Recommend

  • Sher Khan
    Jul 27, 2016 - 4:58PM

    This op-ed is written by a close relative of the Chief Minister, so there is definite bias!Recommend

  • Nako
    Jul 27, 2016 - 5:06PM

    That’s the problem right there. Serving the party instead of serving the country. This is why we fail to progress as a nation. Their personal interest comes before the public interest.Recommend

    Jul 27, 2016 - 9:00PM

    No doubt Qaim Ali Shah is a Senior Politicians ,he could be innocent but proved to be involved in Corruption ,incompetent , Weak and a Pupit Chief Minister who always played in the hands of PPP’s Leader Ship , was unable to take decision , but for joyful life he accepted the position and his childern are enjoying great positions due to him , he ignored Merit at every level .He also proved a great liar ,so how can be a great man ? Recommend

  • tuk
    Jul 27, 2016 - 11:18PM

    I don’t know why ET publishes praises of grandfathers by their grandchildren, first Zia’s grand son and now Qaim’s grand daughter without mentioning who the writer is in the title! They can write as much as they want about politics in newspapers, but if they want to write about their relatives, they should write a book and then try to sell it.Recommend

  • Saad
    Jul 28, 2016 - 12:10AM

    Such a pity that the writer, a graduate of prestigious institutions such as Georgetown and Cambridge fails to see the mess that Qaim Ali Shah and the Peoples Party have left in Sindh. I would recommend that the writer just take a tour through interior Sindh and then comment on what Qaim Ali Shah has achieved. It is bad enough that Sindh has been given to these goons but it is even worse to see educated people like the writer trying to defend them.Recommend

  • H Nizamani
    Jul 28, 2016 - 12:24AM

    Ms Shah incorrectly includes Makhdoom Khaliq Zaman in PPP’s infamous circle of ‘uncles.’Recommend

  • payback
    Jul 28, 2016 - 12:48AM

    @Saad: She does not fail to see, she is just paying back her grandfather who got her in to those prestigious institutions!Recommend

  • Aakash
    Jul 28, 2016 - 1:06AM

    Thank you dear Morial. We are the nation who could only see the half empty glass of water instead half full. That’s why most of the comments reflects the conservative but irrational way of looking things.Sir QAS is the only who has the record to be available for every jiyala including public for the resolution of their problems. He is the one who is not facing even a single allegation of corruption etc. Therefore those who are criticizing him should look other political representatives than would be able to understand the difference between liberal, polite and down to earth sain #QAS.
    Last but not the least no one can be compared to him in PPP itself who sacrificed his whole life for his party.Recommend

  • OSD
    Jul 28, 2016 - 1:57AM

    Saeen Qaim was a good man and you will not get an argument against that from anyone. Perhaps we can also give him credit for being a very good politician. But all that can not protect him from the charge of being an awful administrator. He has left the province in an utter mess, and that is the one thing that he might be remembered for.Recommend

  • ur1987
    Jul 28, 2016 - 2:06AM

    @A seems? “She is the granddaughter of Qaim Ali Shah”.Recommend

  • Rabia
    Jul 28, 2016 - 5:06AM

    So here it’s the proof that he the Chief Minister of Sindh has done absolutely nothing for Sindh.
    I am sorry to say but whatever mentioned inthis article tells about his humbleness, generosity and loyalty to PPP. A common man must ask what good does this loyalty to PPP has bring to Sindh let alone Pakistan.
    Does this article highlights any single good thing that he has done for Sindh, for society in general, in his capacity as chief minister?Can a common man expect to go to chief minister house and seek any help? Sadly the answer is NO. He isn’t even aware of what is happening in his own city, who has been murdered by whom yet he holds the seat of minister without any shame!Recommend

  • FD
    Jul 28, 2016 - 6:32AM

    What a biased and disappointing article. It is one thing to have an opinion, but in this particular case, I think the author is either blind, or clearly related to QAS. Since I know the author to be quite a well educated and well informed personality, I would’ve expected someone with her educational background to accept QAS’s shortcomings at the very least, rather than shamelessly patronize his failures. Recommend

  • Feisal Rahimtoola
    Jul 28, 2016 - 10:08AM

    @Toti calling:
    He should be useful for the party even after getting off chief minister-ship. Recommend

  • Feisal Rahimtoola
    Jul 28, 2016 - 10:12AM

    My elders knew and dexcribed him as a gentle gentleman. Recommend

  • reader
    Jul 28, 2016 - 10:17AM

    Right. So QAS is a polite man loyal to the Saeen party. But what has he done for development, administration and governance in Pakistan? Where is Khairpur now? Where is SIndh now? 56 years is a long time, you’re right. Is there anything of worth that QAS has done in these years besides cementing his position in his party? Recommend

  • Osaid Siddiqui
    Jul 28, 2016 - 10:20AM

    Comments and not the actual article tell the entire story for Sindh !!Recommend

  • Feisal Rahimtoola
    Jul 28, 2016 - 10:59AM

    Would you not be happy if your friends and relatives were as dedicated and loyal as outgoing CM?Recommend

  • Wahaj
    Jul 28, 2016 - 12:37PM

    Seems like QAS is a saint……….LOL we all know the truth, you don’t need to tell us the wrong story :@Recommend

  • Tariq Javed
    Jul 28, 2016 - 5:06PM

    This is a tribute to Syed Qaim Ali Shah…..I already had very good impression of this simple man who is among the longest political carrier and without any corruption so for as his own person is concerned. We all have enjoyed remarking about his simple ways but there would not be available a faithful and loyal person like Syed Qaid Ali Shah in today’s politics …he, I think was last of the loyal…..with good or bad……..I am happy that someone has written a very good eulogy for him …..if …I get a chance I will meet Shah ji….he is a wonderful and pleasing personality ……Recommend

  • Umer
    Jul 28, 2016 - 9:34PM

    In the end I guess it should have been who is Qaim Ali Shah instead of MuradRecommend

  • omer
    Jul 29, 2016 - 3:42PM

    because she is his grand daughterRecommend

  • Aug 1, 2016 - 12:11PM

    FYI, I went to Georgetown on a full scholarship – Arrupe Scholarship for Peace and Social Justice – and graduated top of my year with a 3.9 GPA.
    R.e. Cambridge, my mother, a gynecologist at Aga Khan, worked 4 jobs and sold her property to make that happen.
    For my travels around Sindh, please see:
    For more recent published writing on my travels in Sindh, see my write up Sindh’s ghost hospitals and visa culture here:
    Over the last 9 years, I’ve volunteered in all of Sindh’s Northern and Western Districts. This TV show details some of my work:
    salam-sindh-1-1-14-part-4-7_creation Recommend

  • Jahanzaib
    Sep 8, 2016 - 10:16PM

    Forgot to mention his Bhang routine. Recommend

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