March Issue 2015
Cover Story: Partners, Never Friends
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is again actively considering whether to rejoin the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP)-led Sindh government or not. Adhering to the spirit of the overused clichÃ© that there are no permanent friends or foes in politics, these two former allies have already decided to cooperate in the upcoming Senate polls — a sign of the growing thaw in their relations. The MQM hopes to get four senators against its retiring three with the PPP’s help in the Senate polls due on March 5.
Once the Senate elections are over, the MQM leadership will start discussions with the PPP the possibility of rejoining the treasury benches. According to sources in both the parties, half the battle for forging unity between these two main political players from Sindh has already been won in London, where Rehman Malik, a close aide of former president Asif Ali Zardari, has held detailed discussions with the MQM’s self-exiled leader, Altaf Hussain.
Malik has continued to enjoy warm relations with the MQM supreme leader regardless of the nature of ties between their parties on the volatile streets of Karachi. During the former PPP rule, when Malik was serving as interior minister, he was the point-person in keeping the MQM on the right side of Zardari — a task which he skilfully managed without offering the MQM anything substantial.
The MQM did sporadically make a big hue-and-cry in regard to various issues, including the support of some PPP stalwarts to Lyari gangsters, as well as the non-holding of local bodies polls. The slashing of powers of many city government departments and the growing control of the provincial government over them were also among the many points of dispute. And the MQM claimed that even the 60-40 per cent power and resource sharing formula between urban and rural Sindh was not being adhered to by the PPP.
But for most of the PPP government’s five-year term (2008-13), PPP negotiators managed to keep the MQM busy in one round of dialogue after another, without conceding to any of their major demands. All the while, the MQM kept threatening to quit the Sindh government. It even walked out of it several times — but only to rejoin after a few days.
The PPP and MQM members in the Sindh Assembly did enact the Sindh Peoples’ Local Government Act towards the fag end of the PPP’s last term, but holding of the polls under it never materialised. The MQM was then left with no choice other than to quit the provincial government shortly before the 2013 general elections, giving the PPP the justification to scrap the mutually agreed upon local bodies’ law altogether.
Since their parting of ways, the PPP leadership has expressed its desire to bring the MQM back into the fold of the provincial government several times.It is not for the numbers the PPP wants the MQM — it already enjoys a comfortable majority in the house. The MQM presence is needed to run Karachi smoothly, where big businesses and politicians of the ruling party have massive financial stakes and interests.
So will the MQM come on board and satisfy itself — as it did during the previous term of government — with just a few ministries and symbolic crumbs of power, or will it now decide to genuinely stand up for the rights of Karachi and its citizens?
Urban Sindh — just like its rural counterpart — has witnessed a crisis of governance since the PPP assumed power in 2008. The PPP rule has been known for unbridled corruption, the rise of various mafias and interest groups (from land encroachment to that of billboards in Karachi), and a steep erosion in the rule of law. The MQM, which remained the PPP’s partner during most of its rule, cannot completely absolve itself from the sins and crimes of the provincial government.
Both the PPP and the MQM remain responsible for the politicisation of crime and criminalisation of politics in Sindh. At one time, their militants were baying for one another’s blood in Karachi, even while the leadership of the two parties was cooperating to guard their respective political and vested interests.
Karachi’s pressing problems — a city whose interests are championed by the MQM — were never taken up
taken up seriously. The absence of a mass transit system in a mega-city like Karachi has never been made a top issue by any of the political parties, including the MQM. The party has never even called for any symbolic strike — which it does otherwise at the drop of a hat — to protest the transport problems faced by Karachi’s citizens. Commuters travelling on the roofs of buses has become a common sight in Karachi. Earlier, people used to complain that the meters of taxis and rickshaws were faulty. Now drivers operate without them — no questions asked.
The MQM has also neither raised a voice or launched a public campaign against the new billboard mafia which has occupied space on footpaths, blocked innumerable buildings and wrecked the city’s landscape. Compare this to other major cities, including Lahore and Rawalpindi. At least those who govern there keep the public in mind to some extent. But not so in Karachi where giant billboards are not just eyesores, but also pose a safety hazard to the people.
Like the land encroachment mafia, the water mafia has also gained ground since the return of ‘undiluted democracy’ in Sindh. Water trucks which were available for 2,000 to 2,500 rupees just a few months ago, now charge 6,000-8,000 rupees. Water remains a scarce commodity in neighbourhoods falling under the jurisdiction of various cantonment boards, as well as the city government. But is any political party, including the MQM, raising its voice about this?
A scary recent development is the Sindh government’s controversial plan to encroach on 213 acres of the Malir riverbed to develop residential and commercial plots. Is anyone asking any questions about this new environmental disaster in the making?
The police force under this so-called democratic regime has also been highly politicised and compromised. Professional police officers are being shunted to the sidelines, given marginal assignments, and those who can dance to the tune of their political masters are garnering important positions. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the army chief Raheel Sharif felt compelled to admonish the civilian leadership about this sorry state of affairs during a recent meeting in Karachi in which Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, former president Zardari, and the top stalwarts of the Sindh government were present. The message from the army chief was loud and clear: depoliticise the police force and give it operational independence and autonomy.
The list of Karachi’s wounds and grievances is endless, but are any of these issues on the agenda of the elected representatives, who are known more for their greed and corruption than their passion to serve the people?
Will any of these issues even feature during the power-sharing negotiations of the PPP and MQM?
“This time around, if there is any agreement, it will be in black-and-white and presented before the people,” said a senior MQM leader, while stating that in the past his party was taken for a ride by the PPP. “We want the implementation of the 40/60 per cent power and resource sharing formula between urban and rural Sindh.”
However, a strong lobby within the MQM stands firmly opposed to striking a deal with the PPP. “We will have to carry all the excess baggage of the PPP’s poor performance and corruption if we join their government,” said the MQM leader. “That’s the reason many of the party’s senior officials do not want to rejoin the Sindh government.”
A strong lobby within the PPP also shares similar sentiments against the MQM, who it accuses of running a militant wing and trying to hold the city hostage.
“We can run the government effectively without the MQM,” said a PPP MPA. “We do not need their numbers, but our central leadership [read Zardari] thinks that keeping the MQM on board is good for peace in Karachi.”
At the end of the day, any decision about the coalition government in Sindh will essentially be made by Altaf Hussain and Asif Ali Zardari. MQM and PPP hardliners, opposed to such a deal, hope that better sense will prevail among their respective bosses.
But whether the PPP continues to fly solo or manages to bring the MQM in its fold, skeptics believe that the fortunes of Karachi and Sindh in general are not going to change any time soon. The province will be as badly managed as it is now, whether it is a coalition or PPP government in Sindh. As for now and the foreseeable future, Sindh continues to remain hostage to PPP and MQM politics.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.
Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.