Lyari has remained PPP’s backbone for half a century. When and how did other groups make inroads into its stronghold?
It was in 2011-12 when former President Asif Ali Zardari and his Petarian friend-turned-rival, former Home Minister Sindh, Dr Zulfiqar Mirza allegedly decided to hand over Pakistan People’s Party Lyari’s command to Uzair Baloch, one of the key characters of Lyari gang war. In retrospect, it was this decision that proved ‘fatal’ for the party in Election 2018.
Today, the Party Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has faced a humiliating defeat in the PPP traditional stronghold at the hands of Shakoor Shad, a former jiyala, now a PTI candidate.
Shad himself feels sad over Bhutto’s defeat as he tells me: "I feel sorry after defeating Benazir Bhutto’s son. I was associated with the party for 25 years. The writing was on the wall for long but the PPP leaders just could not read it."
I have known Shad since the 1980s. An Iranian Baloch, he is also related to famous singer Mohammad Ali Shehki. He had been an active PPP jiyala from Lyari who also faced hardship during Zia’s era. Later, when Benazir Bhutto came to power, she gave him a job in the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) as Inspector which he later left and went abroad.
Shad is not too wrong in saying that the PPP leadership, particularly that from Lyari, could not assess the ground situation and the changing dynamics of the area in the last 15 years.
Lyari’s political dynamics had started changing after 9/11. I had first noticed the change when I was filing a story for AFP years back on rising extremism. Some of the residents and veteran PPP leaders then told me that outlawed groups were more active in Lyari than political groups.
In the post US-led coalition attack on Afghanistan, Lyari also became a hotbed of terrorists and militants. "They are recruiting people here for jihad and other activities and also providing financial support to jobless youth and their families," a 70 year old resident had then told me.
The area once known for its progressive, leftwing views -- which sent some diehard jiyalas like Nasir Baloch and Ayaz Samoo to the gallows raising ‘Jeay Bhutto’ slogan during Ziaul Haq’s time -- actually started slipping from the hands of progressives and liberals when the famous Lyari Gang War started getting support from some PPP leaders in 2011. This was when sectarian and jihadi outfits besides Baloch separatist groups made inroads in Lyari.
Instead of reforming Lyari or reviving its political colour, in a bid to counter MQM’s militancy, Zardari and Mirza are said to have provided weapons and 100,000 arms licences to Uzair Baloch’s men. It not only led to unrest in the city with mass killings, it virtually led to a civil war-like situation. For the first time ‘Baloch-Muhajir’ conflict emerged. Prior to 2011, there had been no clash of interest between the two communities.
The situation further deteriorated as the Katchi population of Lyari which used to vote either for MQM or anti-PPP candidates became the target and many families left the area.
This policy inflicted the greatest damage to PPP’s Lyari chapter. Five times MNA and MPA from Lyari, Nabil Gabol’s decision to join MQM in 2013 owed itself to this policy as Uzair group considered Gabol as late Arshad Papu’s man. Papu was brutally killed, allegedly by Uzair, who was also accused of having played football with his head. Nabil Gabol’s own house was attacked in Defence. PPP local leaders were left with no choice but to either associate with the gang or leave the party.
Uzair Baloch’s trial is pending in the Military Court for the past one year since he was handed over to army.
The PPP leadership started feeling pressure mounting at the time of 2013 elections when it came to distributing tickets. They were left with no choice but to accommodate Uzair Baloch’s man Shah Jahan Baloch who contested the election from jail and won. Others too enjoyed the gang’s backing.
Political activists and local leaders of PPP took a back seat or left the place. Some went abroad while others silently waited for the good old days of Lyari politics to return which has not till this day, thanks to party’s politics in the area in the last ten years.
This time it was not the same old Lyari which had elected Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, late Abdus Sattar Gabol, Asif Ali Zardari and Nabil Gabol. On July 25, it did elect a former jiyala but by voting against PPP.
Lyari had not voted for PPP just out of love for Bhutto. Some veterans of the area like senior journalist Nadir Shah Adil say, "Bhutto practically provided roti, kapra aur makan by opening the route of Middle East in the 1970s when thousands from Lyari got jobs in the Middle East which brought change in their lifestyle and status."
"I still remember Zulfikar Ali Bhutto came to Lyari and announced 50 per cent reduction in passport fee and ensured that people got a visa after PPP’s victory in 1970," Adil recalls. It was a concept which led to a political satire on tv in a famous serial, Dubai Chalo.
People of Lyari genuinely voted for PPP in return for what Bhutto had done for them. ZAB also allocated job quota for Lyari sportsmen, particularly, boxers and footballers in government departments. This policy was abandoned in the 1990s, rendering most of them jobless. Later, we heard stories of some of them joining gang war or outlawed groups.
Thus, Lyari was both politically and economically deprived. The PPP leadership and its successive governments did not provide any relief to the people. What happened on July 25 was the result of PPP’s neglect of its strongest constituency. One could not blame Bilawal Bhutto for that. Sadly, he became a victim of changing circumstances and controversial decisions of the party leadership in the recent past.
Truth is that had Bilawal Bhutto not been a candidate from this constituency, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) could have created history by electing its first MNA from Lyari. TLP candidate came second by bagging over 42,000 votes, a lot more than what Bilawal got.
Other religious parties like Jamaat-e-Islami also made inroads through their social work and won the provincial seat from the area -- the only seat MMA has won from Karachi this time.
Putting aside all allegations of rigging or delay in announcing results, there are genuine reasons for the defeat of Pakistan People’s Party and that too of the grandson of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and son of Benazir Bhutto in the party’s strongest constituency in the country. The party abandoned hundreds of party workers and left its supporters at the mercy of outlaws and gang wars between 2011 and 2013.
One feels sorry for Bilawal Bhutto, not only because this was his first election, but also because he had worked so hard in the election campaign and carried the excess baggage of the last 10 years of party politics. It was due to his campaign that the party managed to improve its electoral strength and also regained to some extent in Punjab.
In the process, he lost two out of the three seats that he had contested. He won from Larkana, the hometown of Bhutto but lost from Malakand and Lyari. To contest from Malakand was a bad decision. But it was Lyari which surprised him more, a constituency where his sister Aseefa Bhutto and aunt Sanam Bhutto, who has never shown any interest in politics, went door to door to campaign for him.
Lyari Gang War, from Kala Nag to Uzair Baloch, was a decades old phenomenon. PPP had always kept a distance from this war until 2011. It can regain its position in Lyari, but the future PPP government in Sindh needs to do much more than what they have done in 10 years. Bilawal Bhutto has to play a part in reviving the political and social culture of Lyari, open up spaces for jobs for its youth and adopt a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ for gang war.
Not many people know that former prime minister Benazir Bhutto after her return from exile in 1986, in a meeting at 70 Clifton, had candidly told party hardliners to shun the political path of Al-Zulfikar (AZO).
Many PPP local leaders and workers from Lyari distanced themselves from AZO but some left the party after the 1988 elections. Ali Sonara was one of them. Habib Jan was another worker who distanced himself from PPP. Years later, he was blamed for having links with Uzair Baloch.
Lyari remained PPP’s backbone for nearly half a century -- since the birth of the party in 1967. The space and vacuum created by the leadership allowed other groups to make inroads. PTI, perhaps, did the right thing by picking a candidate from the same area, but, it may not be easy for PTI’s Shakoor Shad to consolidate his position in the presence of PPP on one side and religious extremist groups on the other.
It would be interesting to watch whether Imran Khan can bring tabdeeli in Lyari or will Bilawal be able to win Lyari back. One does hope and expect a positive change in Lyari either way.