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November 14, 2017

The engineering fiasco in Karachi


November 14, 2017

Last week’s drama between Farooq Sattar’s MQM-Pakistan and the PSP’s Mustafa Kamal has demonstrated that both the conflicts of Karachi and the orchestrated performances to fix them continue unabated.

Many across the nation have feigned disgust at the malleability of post-Altaf Hussain residual actors like Farooq Sattar, in the tragicomedy of Karachi’s Mohajir-dominated politics. Some were sickened that he would change his mind about leaving the party within an hour, others were nauseated by the appearance of his mother as a political stunt. All this umbrage in the same country where a three-time ex prime minister’s biggest problem is the fight for his political throne between his daughter and his brother, and where the ruling party of the same province that the MQM agonises is led by the widower and the orphan of a party leader assassinated a decade ago.

Sattar didn’t put up his mother or wife or child up to be elected – but merely asked her to underwrite his change of heart on national television. Karachi and its politics occupy a privileged position in the national discourse in Pakistan, and why shouldn’t it: Karachi is a spectacular disaster.

Edward Glaeser’s celebration of urban areas, ‘Triumph of the City’, is a treatise on the notion of cities as the petri dishes of progress and human ingenuity – where people come together, and generate epoch defining ideas, movements, products, and services. Reading Glaeser wax lyrical about the impact of cities in our past, and the potential they have for our future is exhilarating – until one imagines Karachi as the ultimate Pakistani city. “An open city can’t exist in a closed nation” Glaeser writes.

All of Pakistan seems to know what’s wrong with Karachi, but no one wants to quite admit the fundamental truth about the disastrous state of Karachi: it is but a reflection of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of the country whose crown jewel it is. Karachi is the convoluted and confused city that is being choked by the country it is a product of. Non-Karachiites don’t have to like this fact – but it would help to try to engage with it.

Constitutionally, Pakistan is supposed to conduct a census every decade. As per schedule, four censuses were conducted in the first four decades after Pakistan’s founding. In the 36 years since the last timely census, only two more have been conducted. The 1998 census was held 17 years after the preceding one – incidentally the same 17 years in which the MQM emerged and Mohajir identity assumed the political face of the once magical orator we now know as the intoxicated and imbalanced clown, Altaf Hussain.

The 2017 census, whose provisional results were released in August this year, was conducted 19 years after the previous one. Not surprisingly, of all the discontents of Pakistan’s census, the MQM and Karachiites at large seem to be the loudest among those claiming injury. Why?

There are many textbook reasons to conduct a census, but governance is not a theoretical or philosophical enterprise, it is much more mundane. The census informs two of the most critical mechanisms of the republic. First, the census is the basis for the allocation of constituencies in the National Assembly according to Article 51(5). Second, the census is the key basis for the allocation of funds through the National Finance Commission (NFC) that determines the share that goes to each of the provinces.

In short, the census helps answer the two most important decisions about our democracy: how elections are organised, and how we share money between the provinces. It doesn’t take rocket scientist levels of intellect to deduce that Pakistan’s consistent failure to conduct a census has most probably exacerbated the crisis of identity, legality and criminality in Karachi.

The geniuses in Islamabad and Rawalpindi (and indeed in all other places where Pakistanis wax lyrical about this crisis) are wont to frame the problems of Pakistan’s principal megacity as the manifestation of an ethnic problem, or a religious problem, or a problem of crime, extortion and kidnapping. Indeed, it may be all these things, but these problems are not unique to Karachi.

In Balochistan, ethnic identity fuels both an anti-state insurgency, and a simmering inter-ethnic divide that is the foundation of a permanent regime of coalition governments. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, ethnic divisions between Pakhtuns and Hazarewals fuel a singularly distinct politics in different areas, where tensions sometimes fuel violence. In Sindh, the predatory elite’s cultural appropriation seems to be able to deliver political rents with the consistency of a Swiss watch. The exceptional stature of the angry and deprived Mohajir is a caricature that has cousins all the way up and down the Indus River, and on both sides of Attock. Why?

Despite the 18th       Amendment, Pakistan is a highly centralised republic. Nothing captures this centralisation more acutely than the dominance of national news, at the expense of local narratives. From Khyber to Karachi, we hear the stories and watch the dramas that afflict E-7 in Islamabad, Gulberg in Lahore and Defence in Karachi. This hyper-centralisation is not the product of a specific conspiracy, but of the more general, but deliberate and incessant engineering of this country’s national discourse and its politics.

The key trigger point for the Mustafa Kamal vs Farooq Sattar split is Kamal’s refusal to entertain the agency of Mohajir identity: “We are all Pakistani”. Nothing does more to     fuel the corrupt enterprises  that use Pashto poetry, Sindhi ajraks, Baloch resentment and Mohajir tang-pajamas than this clumsy and stupid insistence on an identity straitjacket in which we, Pakistanis, are only allowed to feel resonance with our sub-cultures on fancy dress day at our children’s schools. For those that suckle at the teat of the wider idea and structure of the Pakistani republic – elites, almost-elites and non-elites – the notion of clinging to these sub-cultures and identities seems sinister. But the problem is not the inherent evil in someone insisting on being called Mohajir. The problem is the attribution of evil to those identity matrices to which we do not belong.

If you can’t understand the nuances and textures of people’s multiple and rich identities, can you be trusted to engineer political outcomes?

This, and not the minutiae of a Farooq Sattar or a Mustafa Kamal press conference, should be the focus of our national debate about not just Karachi, but all those parts of our country in which linguistic, sectarian, cultural or ethnic identity has been problematised.

Pakistan’s enemies have a 70-year track record of being smarter than us. At almost every turn in our remarkable national story, enemy actors have successfully outflanked our discomfort with diversity to our detriment. The removal of Altaf Hussain may represent the surgery required to rid our country of a cancer, but as we are learning now, it does not remove the problematised edifice of the disenchanted Mohajir.   Farooq Sattar’s theatrics are not meant to win the hearts and minds of the Rangers’ high command or primetime talk show audiences around the country. They are a direct and intimate conversation with that disenchanted Mohajir. We are using the word Mohajir today because, in their infinite wisdom, Pakistan’s social and political engineers tried to erase this word.

Overusing the term ‘Mohajir’ in a discussion about Karachi does not just play to the benefit of Farooq Sattar (and Altaf Hussain in years prior). It also plays to the benefit of the rather dim-witted attempts to engineer ‘better’ political outcomes in Karachi. How? It helps absolve them of the responsibility for the overarching crisis of governance in Pakistan.

Military and intelligence interventions  are central to both: the overarching crisis of governance the country faces and the crisis in Karachi. They will be solved not by more engineering, but by a permanent cessation of interventions that have neither the benefit of being particularly clever nor the sanction of constitutional or legal norms.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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