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September 16, 2019

Transforming Karachi


September 16, 2019

Prime Minister Imran Khan chairs a meeting to review progress on the 'CLean Karachi' initiative and other projects for the city.-APP

The MQM has done it again. A single statement from one of its legislators, who happens to be the federal law minister, has galvanized the party, infused new spirit in its workers, brought its various factions together, and also established the authority and leadership of the man who issued the statement – all at the cost of the PTI and Imran Khan. They are not only ‘nafees log’, as the PM had commented recently, MQM waalas are very, very zaheen log as well.

2018 was the most significant year for Karachi’s politics since the 1988 elections in which the MQM swept Sindh’s urban areas. After three decades of an unmitigated disaster that was the MQM’s high-handed politics, 2018 marked the end of the party’s hegemony in its strongholds.

More: Article 149(4) no solution to Karachi problems

It also marked a more profound change. For the first time in half a century, various ethnic groups saw a new ray of hope in a national party. They saw the PTI as a federal party that could unite a large section of people of Karachi on the city’s civic identity, defying all ethnic divisions. The PTI made a huge dent in the city’s identity politics and absolute control appeared an election away.

But Kaptaan being Kaptaan outsourced the city to the good MQM. In doing so, Kaptaan appears to have repeated the blunder that Zardari made after the 2008 elections. He failed to understand that while the MQM was his ally in the coalition government, it remained his sworn political enemy for control of the city of lights, the crown jewel of Pakistan that has eluded every federal political party since time immemorial.

Related: How about designating Karachi as Pakistan’s second capital?

The MQM has played it well. They were smart even when they had barely started shaving. Now that they are greybeards, they are as wily as it can get. On the face of it, the MQM is leading an anti-PPP platform for the PTI. In real political terms, the party has snatched back the leadership of Karachi from the PTI and dragged the PTI into the city’s ethnic politics where only the MQM can be a winner.

Why did Imran Khan made Farogh Naseem head of the “high-level Karachi Transformation Committee” instead of one of his own legislators or leaders? Why did Farogh Naseem start the debate on imposition of Article 149 even before the committee held its first meeting?

Even a lay person can see that Article 149 is totally out of context in Karachi’s situation. Even if this Article carried such farfetched meanings that the MQM is trying to read in it, there is a huge gap between what can be done and what should be done. Mr Beans is funny because he does what can be done, not what should be done. And we know that comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin, both rooted in the absurdity of the situation.

It was clearly a political statement meant to achieve political gains – for the MQM of course. It is too farfetched an idea for the federation to take control of Karachi. Islamabad babus made a mess of Fata when the area was under their direct command for seven decades – and they cannot do any better in Karachi. The solution to Karachi’s problem lies in decentralization, not in centralization.

Instead of Article 149, the federal government should be talking of Article 140-A that states: “Each province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.”

After winning enormous power and resources from the centre, political parties have stopped devolution at provincial capitals, denying empowerment to cities and districts. This situation is creating huge regional disparities in every province. As a metropolis, Karachi needs a lot more devolution. It needs its own institutions and the city must run itself.

But the PTI will not touch Article 140-A with a tong. It has recently killed democratically elected local bodies in Punjab to rid them of the PML-N’s influence. Its legislators in Lahore and Islamabad want to grab power just the way PPP legislators do.

After the recent controversy, any extraordinary arrangement for Karachi will result in a huge backlash from the rest of Sindh. Effectively, it has made decentralization trickier. But such a situation creates more grievances that the MQM can benefit from.

It has instantly pumped new poison in Sindh and bracketed the PTI into part of Karachi’s ethnic politics. It has mobilised, activated and united all variants of the MQM and has also mobilised Sindhis. Even the parties allied with the government have refused. It has stirred Sindhi nationalists and in turn forced the PPP to show that they are more loyal to Sindh than Sindh nationalists. It has also created a rift between the PTI and the GDA, the alliance that can help the PTI upset the PPP applecart in Sindh one day.

While the PPP has ignored the metropolis, the MQM has laid it waste through violence and by destroying its institutions. Not very long ago, our investigating agencies were telling us how the MQM turned the city’s institutions into employment asylums for its loyalists, among whom some had a reputation of being criminal. More recently, the independent media has unearthed stories of corruption and mismanagement at the KMC, under the control of the MQM.

The PTI’s attitude to Karachi is not very different from the behaviour of other major political parties and there may be a good reason for it. Karachi demands too much and does not deliver enough political returns. Better to outsource it to the MQM and use it as a punching bag to knock out the PPP rather than getting serious about it.

Karachi cannot be managed on provincial resources alone. This city carries a lot of the burden of the federation by taking one million new residents from other federating units every year. It absorbs the burden of refugees, IDPs and the extreme poor from each part of the country. It also provides economic opportunities to capable professionals and businesses. Most of all, it is a port city on which the economy of the whole country is reliant. It deserves extra resources from the federation and must fight for a fair share from Islamabad.

In March, Imran Khan promised Rs162 billion to transform Karachi. The PTI allocated merely 12 billion in the budget, and according to claims of the provincial government, not a single rupee has been spent so far. The federal government must puts its money where its mouth is.

While Karachi may have to wait for other types of transformation, the Karachi Transformation Committee has already transformed the city by turning the clock back by a few years; Farogh Naseem must be congratulated for this achievement.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan