“Saving” Karachi

In a complex, typically Pakistani manner, we have slugged on to take a step forward in electoral democracy

Saroop Ijaz April 25, 2015
The writer is a Lahore-based lawyer. The views expressed by the author are his own [email protected]

NA-246 is finally done and a small thank you is in order. One is entitled to be relieved for the fact that we will not be regaled with who ate what for lunch and if the kulfi had badaams or not. However, more significantly, there is no body count for the election day. Relatively speaking, it was a peaceful election. Now that the madness is over, there is also opportunity to reflect by the PTI, the MQM and the media for future elections.

The only inroads that the PTI made were in the media coverage. The MQM’s share of the vote cast remained unchanged. The primary reason for this is simple: arrogance is unappealing. Mr Khan employed a unique strategy to ask for votes, namely by insulting the electorate and the city. The description of Mr Khan’s Karachi was that of an occupied territory and his symbolism was of Mahmud Ghaznavi, the invader who will “free” Karachi. Mr Khan has incredible confidence in himself and in his information as he has displayed previously in his extraordinary grasp of the Taliban issue. Juxtaposing Mr Khan’s views on post-1996 Kabul and present-day Karachi, it just seems that he believes Karachi to be in poorer shape. Terming a few million voters “zinda lashein” (zombies or some such) does not really help either. The initial assumption of a leader in electoral politics cannot be the lack of personal agency of the voters.

The rhetoric of Mr Imran Ismail fearlessly venturing into the lawless badlands of NA-246 (with Rangers and Police protection) and that being an achievement in itself was perhaps geared towards a justification in the event of the almost inevitable MQM victory. Nevertheless, how insulting and condescending to the people who live in Azizabad (also the PTI voters, perhaps particularly the PTI voters living in NA-246) that the reality of their lives was reduced to a function of criminality and Stockholm syndrome. No effort made to understand their problems, and a verdict on what “their” problems were was given in Islamabad and relayed through DHA, Karachi.

The PTI’s failure was to grasp the endlessly repeated cliche of politics being local. Mr Khan decided to ride his wave of popular support from the container in Islamabad all the way to Azizabad, Karachi. Here again, like 2013, Mr Khan and his party considered television theatrics as a substitute for local electioneering and organisational structures. The PTI’s refrain that we are a party of ‘parhay likhay’ (educated people) does perhaps has a tinge of class bias to it, particularly in a country where access to education is an exclusionary and expensive affair. The most striking characteristic of Mr Khan and his party is the failure to see any complexity and the tendency to divide the world in a George Bush binary of with us or against us. This sometimes is a stellar quality; never in a politician though.

Finally, the PTI did nothing to dispel the impression that it had ‘establishment’ support and was willing to volunteer itself in the MQM-Rangers confrontation. On the contrary, the PTI’s candidate seemed to quite enjoy perpetuating the impression and in the process left himself no outs in case of a defeat. The mistake remains the same, refusing to tailor image and messaging to the local reality. The establishment-backed impression was up against an ethnic victimhood narrative, both constructed images and hence more perceived than real. Yet, being blind to the relevance of ethnicity did hurt the PTI.

None of this is an apology for the MQM or its methods of conducting politics. There was no suspense to the fact that the MQM will win and to a varying degree dominate this election. This time around the MQM had to win an election under a microscope and hence did not and could not use its infrastructure of force. The MQM needs to reflect on its relationship with the city and politics. There needs to be a realisation that it does not need to use force or the threat of it to win elections, or in the larger context, control the city. Since, if it boils down to the capacity to use force as the determining factor, then in this round, the real adversary perhaps, has bigger guns than even the MQM. From the optics of it, the MQM, in this continuing stand-off (and NA-246 election) in Karachi and London, is going back to the beginning and almost contested this election as “Muhajir” rather than as “Muttahida”. The engagement of the MQM politically with the city remains emotional, either as bullies or as perceived victims. This should not be the case. The MQM claims of ownership of the city also suffer from exclusion and parochial vision. The MQM needs to abandon the language and practice of force and move to the business of representing the people who have voted for it.

The Media coverage of the election (with shining exceptions) was quite ridiculous. It was made to be the battle of “status quo versus change” and other such elevated things. Everyone was an expert on Karachi and was certain of their opinion and the opinion on the mainstream media was united and condescending, namely that Karachi needs to be “saved”. The nonsense about the demand for minute-by-minute coverage cannot be taken seriously. The media does not only cater to a demand, it also creates it. In this instance, it was about the level of spiciness of niharis and broad polemics than any constituency analysis. It seemed NA-246 and the people living there were just props to decide an argument or perhaps, a bet.

The cost of all this was the further shrinking away of the civilian state. It took the Rangers to take over and conduct the election for it to be seemingly decent and fair. This is a cause of reflection for the PTI and the Media; they weakened the civilian infrastructure and the Election Commission while not strengthening them in any way.

Yet, NA-246 was done, and was done without blood. The election results were accepted by the runner-up. The perception of ‘establishment support’ and an appeal for votes based on religion was largely rejected, the next step hopefully could be where the exclusive appeal based on ethnicity and victimhood loses its iron grip. Congratulations are in order for the MQM and the PTI. In a complex, typically Pakistani manner, we have slugged on to take a step forward in electoral democracy. That is a reason for hope.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 26th, 2015.

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Arifq | 7 years ago | Reply Saroop as always, simply brilliant. Keep writing, we need honest, objective thinkers like yourself
Parvez | 7 years ago | Reply The fact that the MQM would win big was evident.....the fact that they were made to doubt this was revealing. The fact is that Imran Khan stands where he stands today not because of his or the PTI's efforts but because of the sheer ineptness and corrupt practices of the others....the sooner he understands this the better for him.
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