Forced Exit: A new Chief Minister for Sindh
The month of July brought another major shuffle in the Sindh cabinet. Last July, it was the vocal Sharjeel Memon who lost his portfolio as information minister in the PPP provincial government. He was given another ministry, but later stripped of this as well when corruption charges loomed and he was compelled to make a hasty departure from the country. This time around, Chief Minister Sindh and PPP veteran Qaim Ali Shah, has been moved out in favour of provincial finance minister Murad Ali Shah, a scion of the late Chief Minister Sindh, Syed Abdullah Shah, who will assume the Chief Minister’s post.
The news was unexpected, as conjecture had focused on the likely exit of home minister Sohail Anwar Sial after an incident in which his brother Tariq Sial was accused of getting PPP supporter Asad Kharral released from the police, following which the Rangers conducted a raid at the minister’s residence in Larkana.
The Chief Minister’s ouster seems to have been dictated by the central leadership of the party and followed a meeting in Dubai chaired by Asif Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. “It was a decision made by the party chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari,” a PPP leader discloses. It seems the party leadership is opting for a provincial government chief who can be more proactive and stand his ground in the face of mounting pressure from the establishment.
PPP veteran Qaim Ali Shah has the unique distinction of winning every election he has contested on the PPP ticket. This was his third stint as chief minister and he had held the office for the second consecutive term. Despite his long association with the party and ten years in office, he had very little to show in terms of performance. It was an inglorious era, with the administration sliding into deadlock and virtual paralysis.
Post-2008 elections, Shah had to deal with the PPP’s troublesome allies, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) as well as the Awami National Party (ANP). His tenure witnessed some of the most troubled years in the history of the metropolis of Karachi. Most decisions in his government were made in the core committee, comprising senior leaders of the PPP and members of both the MQM and PPP.
Whenever there was unrest in the city, people were killed in the streets, markets had to shut down and the whole city came to a standstill, the government would go into closed door meetings with its allies. The agreements struck in these back door deliberations would bring some respite, albeit temporary, to the lives of city dwellers.
Qaim Ali Shah’s second stint in office was plagued by sudden outbreaks of violence, financial scams and frequent targeted killings on the basis of faith or ethnicity. 2013, the year that marked the end of the first term and beginning of a second term for the PPP government in Sindh, was the most violent year in the history of Karachi. But political forces failed to rethink their tactics. Instead, they kept meting out city resources, lands, amenity plots, charged parking lots etc to whoever could exert more pressure or offer greater incentives to bag a major share.
The federal government of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) lacked major political stakes in the province. Given the breakdown of law and order, they started a targeted operation with the police, assisted by the paramilitary force, the Rangers, with the consent of the provincial government. The targeted operation, aimed at eliminating terrorist elements, curbing the menace of financial crime and ending political violence, was further intensified with the approval of the National Action Plan (NAP) in the wake of the Army Public School massacre in Peshawar. It has been successful in getting the desired results as acts of terrorism have significantly decreased and political violence, frequent shut-downs and financial crimes have been reduced to a large extent. But the extended powers of the paramilitary forces and the overarching role of the apex committee left Qaim Ali Shah with little authority and he had to resort to frequent reminders about his ostensible position as the captain of the ship.
When the decision regarding an extension for the Rangers and granting policing powers under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) had to be revisited after every couple of months, this was an opportunity for the chief minister to get assurances from the Rangers’ high command and corps commander Karachi that they would not transcend their given powers and take the chief minister into confidence on major decisions concerning provincial authorities and political leaders. In practice, however, the Chief Minister was left in the dark while government offices were raided and PPP bigwigs hauled up.
The Rangers have learned to work on the media and public relations front, garnering support from the business community. With certain political and pressure groups coming out in their favour, an amenable press and the right maneuvers from their high command, they have continued on their mission without facing any significant obstacle.
In recent months, they have fed the media with the confessional statements of Asif Zardari’s close associate and former PPP advisor, Dr Asim Hussain, who made startling revelations against the former president and his adopted brother, Owais Muzaffar Tappi. These revelations, though of little legal value, have helped in exerting pressure on the ruling party and provided a twisted context to their bid to resist extending powers for the Rangers. The Rangers have tried to link the issue of law and order to corruption to broaden their domain of action against unwanted elements. The Army chief too had put his weight behind this specific endeavour, as he spoke of corruption and its link to terrorism on different occasions.
On another front, the MQM, the major political force in the city, has its own list of complaints against the paramilitary forces, from forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings of its workers and activists to prolonged detentions and smear campaigns. Recently, the body of Riaz Ul Haq, an MQM worker missing for the last fourteen months was found bearing torture marks. The MQM had alleged that he was in the Rangers’ custody and now accuse them of killing him. The Rangers have strictly refuted the allegation, terming it an act of disinformation.
The MQM’s woes do not end there, as they battle on another front with the ruling PPP for the establishment of the local government system. The party won the local government elections held last December, but has yet to be given local government powers. Their nominated candidate for the position of city mayor, Waseem Akhtar, currently charged in the Dr Asim Hussain case, is known to be an aggressive leader. The party now seeks to prevent the ruling PPP from crippling local government powers, at the same time that it resists pressure from powerful quarters to debilitate its influence and support in the city. Interestingly, in the tussle between the PPP and Rangers for power, the MQM has come out in support of extending their powers to the whole of the province.
The Rangers had last month opposed a court ruling allowing Waseem Akhtar to travel abroad. Not surprisingly, along with Rauf Siddiqui, another MQM senior leader, he has been refused bail by the Anti-Terrorism Court in the Dr Asim Hussain case. Along with their former companion and present Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) leader, Anees Qaimkhani, the two stand accused of providing medical facilities to terrorist elements in Dr Hussain’s hospital.
Dr Asim Hussain was held last August by the Rangers, and along with charges of financial irregularity he has been charged under the Anti- Terrorism Act (ATA) for the treatment of terrorists in his hospital. His arrest had come despite PPP bids to comply with the Rangers’ wish list. It remains to be seen whether the PPP will better its performance at the provincial level with the choice of a new Chief Minister.
Murad Ali Shah studied engineering at NED and is a graduate of the prestigious Stanford University, California, where he studied economic systems. He worked with WAPDA, the Hyderabad Development Authority and the Karachi Fish Harbour Authority before coming into politics. Close to the party leadership, he has participated in crucial meetings and the decision making process through the PPP’s current stint in government. He has assertively pushed for the rights of the province in his dealings with the centre.
The rout of the PPP in the recent Kashmir elections provided a timely reminder that slogans alone, whether anti-military or pro-military cannot fill the performance void. To resist the widening mandate of the Rangers from Karachi to the whole of the province, the PPP needs to perform, or it will be forced to give up to pressure exerted through various means, and end up losing its last fort, confined as it is to rural Sindh.
Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order