October Issue 2016
Interview: Dr Arif Alvi
By Ali Arqam and Yousuf Sajjad | Cover Story | Newsbeat National | Published 7 years ago
There is a perception that the PTI focuses its attention on the urban centres of Punjab, but the same level of interest is missing in Karachi. Your workers complain that a lack of focus, combined with a rigged voting process, cost the party six or seven National Assembly seats in the city in the 2013 general elections, as well as seats in the by-polls and Local Bodies’ elections. How do you respond?
I keep a couple of things in mind when I think about our performance in the recent elections. I don’t want to fool myself. I think that if we lost in the by-elections and in the local bodies’ polls, then we need to focus on organisation and messaging. Organisation is like the machine that squeezes juice out of sugarcane. The MQM and the Jamaat-e-Islami have excellent organisations which can get the best out of their cadres, whether they do it with force or persuasion. But messaging is very different.
Messaging means motivating people to vote for you. Our messaging in Karachi in future should be focused on Karachi’s issues rather than on being anti-Altaf, or anti-MQM. Our local leadership kept doing this because Altaf Hussain is the symbolic bad guy of Karachi politics, to say the least. There is a precept in communication science that if someone commits a mistake and you criticise the person for it, he will go on the defensive. But, if the focus is on the wrong act, on the mistake rather than the person committing it, it makes communication easier and less personal.
Would you take the blame for the flawed party approach towards Karachi?
I was the Sindh organiser when we contested the NA-246 by-elections in April 2015, and Ali Zaidi was the organiser in Karachi. I didn’t interfere. I had to focus on the other districts of Sindh and I spoke little of the issues pertaining to Karachi. But now things have changed. From being anti-Altaf and anti-MQM-centric, our politics are going to be pro-Karachi. We have decided to chalk out a pro-Karachi strategy to reach people at the grassroots level, and to take ownership, to be here to take up issues. It’s a formidable task.
Will party chairman Imran Khan, the local leadership, and your social media teams adhere to this new strategy?
Imran Khan has been doing this, but he is over there at the centre. He has to take positions at the national level. I have tried to explain to Khan Sahib and others from the party that while there is an anti-MQM voter — a Punjabi, Pashtun or even a highly educated Mohajir who cannot become pro-MQM — who might come to you, you cannot alienate Mohajir voters.
In testing times, the MQM keeps reiterating that everyone is against them. The Urdu-speaking population — the majority of Karachiites, and the descendants of the Mohajirs — have been fed the narrative that they have no future. They believe they have been pushed to the wall, and if they don’t stand up, they will be shoved into the sea. I have sat in their closed-door meetings and before I became a member of Parliament, I travelled with some MQM lawmakers. They thought since I was from the same community as them, I would have the same issues. They would complain relentlessly about Mohajirs being baited, insulted, and treated as the ‘other.’ This is their thought process. It is a paranoid mindset.
I studied dentistry in Lahore. Over there people used to call me ‘Bhayya,’ and it didn’t bother me. I got elected as the president of the student union by defeating my opponent with a huge margin of votes. I do not consider myself a Mohajir, because it was my parents who migrated, not me. But whether you call me a Mohajir, or call me by my surname, it doesn’t matter to me. But there are, of course, issues of bias and prejudice that remain, and a proportionate response is necessary.
So if we have to engage with someone who identifies himself only as a Mohajir, we have to take into consideration his views and thinking.
The Mohajirs constantly reiterate that Sindhi feudals come to Karachi to make money out of this city and go back to their lands. They believe only Mohajirs can preserve or protect Karachi. This argument might be true up to a certain point, but then the man, who became the major claimant of Karachi, MQM Quaid Altaf Hussain, did the same thing. He also took the money out of this city, and he resorted to violence and did other things along the way which were worse than the crimes committed by those he had been accusing of injustice.
He asked people to sell their television sets and buy Kalashnikovs. In the process, all that Mohajirs were known for — education and learning — was lost.
One issue they keep talking about is the quota system. They question us about our take on it. I believe jobs should be given on the basis of justice. People from the oppressed stratum must be given more opportunities. If I have four children, I will give most attention to that child who falls back in his studies. People may say, ‘give them all equal attention,’ but my love dictates that the child who needs it most will get more attention from me. Across the world quotas are established, and opportunities created for those who need them. This way you try to raise the oppressed class.
And if that extra effort [to provide help to those in need] is dispensed with impartiality and with justice, then people will accept it. Over here, there is neither impartiality nor justice. Under the quota system, jobs were given in interior Sindh, but the People’s Party sold all those jobs. And nowadays, the lowest price for a job is Rs 800,000 to Rs 900,000. That’s not justice, is it? Jobs in Karachi were also not given on merit. The jobs that members of the MQM got in the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board, the Metropolitan Corporation, and other departments, were given to the party’s sector ‘in-charges’ or criminal elements within the MQM ranks. Meanwhile, those who merited those jobs in Karachi, deserving people, did not receive anything.
In the quota system, the scales of justice are similar to the ones at home, and there can be no two opinions about that. There is no point in having a quota system if you steal, bribe or cheat [while awarding or getting jobs]. I believe the quota system has not been used in Pakistan; a system of theft has been used here instead.
Sindh is very deprived. It’s in a very bad condition — far worse than Karachi. Recently I was on a five-day trip to the interior with Shah Mahmood Qureshi, and I saw little children tying strips of cement sacks to their feet to run across the hot sand, and sometimes they ran barefoot. The water they drink comes from ponds, and it is so dirty and smelly that you wouldn’t even consider putting your foot in it.
Sindh is one province, but the MQM demands that Karachi should be a separate province. If you look at it from the perspective of the indigenous Sindhi, his heart breaks when he hears such rhetoric. Sindhis welcomed the Mohajirs into their homes during the Partition of 1947. But they paid back by demanding that the province be broken. This is like someone hosting a guest in a room of their house and that person turning around demanding that the hosts bifurcate their house, and deed that room to him as his property.
Some political analysts say the MQM’s demand for a separate province stems from the fact that the powers of the local government are so clipped.
Yes, there is the matter of ownership of Karachi, and a devolution of power. This has not been implemented effectively anywhere. A good attempt has been made in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where there has been effective legislation, and if translated into action on the ground, then that is real devolution. In Karachi there is no real devolution of power. According to the Sindh Local Government Act which was just passed, the minister for local governance has the power to dismiss people, override resolutions and dissolve assemblies while not giving financial resources to the district government. The Supreme Court forced them to carry out the elections, otherwise they wouldn’t even have happened.
But the transfer of power is not visible.
The law enforcement agencies’ targeted operations against the MQM are ongoing and the party continues to lament this action. PTI meanwhile, does not seem ready to lend a ear to such complaints as is evident in the recent Rao Anwar case…
I agree, we should not have supported Rao Anwar, as he owes his fame to his excesses against the people of Karachi. I told Khan Sahib he shouldn’t have done this. But you know our party has people of diverse backgrounds, and some of them might have personally experienced, or at least witnessed, MQM excesses. So they react very strongly when it comes to the MQM. But I have spent time in jail (during the Ayub Khan era) and have firsthand experience of the way the police treats prisoners. So I would insist that the police not be absolved of the wrongs it has done. The best way to keep the police in check is to depoliticise it. As Zulfiqar Mirza said, in Karachi police stations have price tags attached to them. They have sold out to the highest bidders, and then, at their bidding, employ the tactics they are notorious for.
How does Karachi fit into your anti-corruption narrative, and how is it linked to your future strategies?
If the 2013 general elections had been fair, MQM would have been challenged through the electoral process in Karachi. You know what the MQM and the PPP have done to Karachi in the last eight years. Whether there was an alliance — as there was till 2013, or whether the MQM moved to the opposition benches — as it did three years ago — Karachi was abandoned by both. The ostensible tussle and verbal furore against each other was only to deceive the public. Both sit together to take their share of the money they have plundered in tandem.
With the emergence of the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), isn’t the TI confronted by a new challenge, since this new party is likely to carve out its support base from the MQM — which you surely must have viewed as your constituency.
The PSP has resorted to doing the same thing we did in the past against the MQM. They have gone against the MQM and its supremo Altaf Hussain, but if they keep overdoing this, as we did in the past, and also very recently in the by-polls, it will backfire. That’s not the way to bring people close to you. Now, I would rather talk about Karachi’s issues, go to all the city’s areas fearlessly, start meeting and cultivating people. We have one-and-a-half years till the next elections. It’s more than enough time to complete all these tasks.
The PSP genesis is shadowy. If you take a survey in Karachi, you will find most people saying that the PSP was pushed into the scene, that it is an unnatural phenomenon. Karachi has a history of rejecting such unnatural phenomena. The PSP might have some effect in the short term, but it will not be able to sustain itself for long.
The MQM will not be decimated. The PSP might have some well-meaning individuals, but their narrative goes against them. And there are reports that in Karachi and in Hyderabad, many criminal elements have joined the PSP. On the other hand, the MQM probably still has hundreds of people who believe Altaf Hussain is right, and I am sure there are two to three thousand people in its ranks who could resort to violence and militancy. This can lead to chaos. I pray that I am wrong.
How would you deal with the issues in Karachi — among them the major issue of public utilities?
Karachi has its own specific issues. Commercialisation in the city was carried out the wrong way. The entire infrastructure has collapsed.
The problem of water shortage needs desperate attention. Karachi is sanctioned 550 million gallons of water per day; but we are only able to pump 420 million gallons of water per day at Gharro and Dhabeji from the pumping stations. However, this has been a crisis mainly for the poor and impoverished of the city. Neelam colony, a poor locality in my constituency, has no potable water supplies, but a pipeline going through it provides water to the uber fancy Icon Tower. Isn’t that disgusting? And this is how the provincial government has been handling this issue. If this problem is not addressed, it can lead to crises, or even water riots in Karachi.
When the federal budget was announced, we approached the Federal Finance Minister, Ishaq Dar, to increase the federal government funding for the K-4 project, from 500 million to six billion rupees.
Then there is the sewerage system. We are pumping approximately 400 million gallons of water into the sea. The CEO of the K-Electric told me in a meeting that if we look at Karachi on the Google map, we will see how a huge area of the sea area around Karachi has turned yellow, because of the sewage water we dump into the sea.
With all the illegal construction, the sewerage system will get further choked. But the concerned authorities have always done this. First, they allow the illegal construction, then after paying the relevant officials, those authorised to build two-storey buildings, build five and eight-storey ones.
Next the government announces that all the illegal constructions will be legitimised — and in the process gets healthy bribes for the second time: first for allowing the illegal construction, and second for regularising them. It’s all a huge mess.
There seems to be an endless craving for eating into the city’s resources, and everyone is involved. Recently, newspapers reported the story of the Clifton Creek land, where land still under water was allotted for mining by an ex-minister of mining, Agha Tariq of the PPP, to his own wife, and the land’s status was changed. Now the government says it’s legal, the KMC says it’s legal, and the DHA has also termed it legal, but the case is pending in the courts.
Look at the leaders of the MQM; they raise slogans against feudalism, they keep criticising the feudal politicians, yet, for decades, they have had alliances with them, and have turned into city-feudals themselves. They have ravaged the city along with their PPP counterparts.
It was the MQM that sold amenity plots and the land allocated for parks and hospitals. Thanks to Altaf Hussain we learnt about “China-cutting.” So this hunger for land never ends.
The issues of solid waste management, of the infrastructure and the public transport facilities all need to be dealt with.
The problem is, Karachi is considered as a cash cow by everyone. The land is valuable, the surrounding islands are valuable, and so far there is no scarcity of land. The city possesses a lot of resources, and everyone wants a piece of the pie. It reminds me of what the director of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP), the late Akhtar Hameed Khan, told Imran Khan and I, when we went to visit him at the OPP: “Mey aksar in se kehta hun, ke Karachi ek gaye hai, is ka doodh piyo, laikin isey zinda tau rehney do, iski chaanpain tau mat khao.” (“I often tell the people who are at the helm of affairs in the city that Karachi is a cow, milk it if you want, but please let it live, don’t make chops of its meat.”)
So how do you resolve these issues that are almost part of our national fabric now?
During a visit to the Philippines, I came across the interesting efforts by an organisation there working for eradicating electoral corruption; they told us that the biggest corruption is in the electoral process. It is a vicious cycle. People get elected through corrupt practices. They approve laws which favour them, and make more money through financial embezzlement. They also get people of their choice appointed on key positions. And finally with the help of the accumulated money and help from the people in key positions, they get elected once again. A case in point is the Philippines’ President Duterte, known to be Donald Trump in a cruder form.
In my opinion the solution lies in politics, and a fair election process is the foundation of politics. In the absence of this fairness, we are condemned to have crooks like Duterte get elected again and again. People should have to go through the criminal justice system before coming into the political process. When you point fingers at the PPP for corruption and financial crimes, they respond with reference to the results of the elections, saying people elected these candidates. That proves they are not corrupt. But voters may not necessarily be cognisant of the facts; they don’t have the scales to measure the level of corruption.
Why has the PTI opted to take its protest to the road again?
In a fair democracy, the thief and the looter would have to present himself for accountability before he got into the electoral process. Honest people get defeated in an unfair electoral process. They get defeated and frustrated by the dysfunctional system.
Why have we come out? Why have we opted for bringing people on the roads? Why will we be marching towards Raiwind on September 30? Because they have closed all other doors to us. In the Parliament, the speaker of the National Assembly closed the first one with his response to our reference. The relevant authorities also kept delaying the proceedings for the Terms of Reference (TORs) for the investigation on the Panama Leaks. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has done nothing, and while the Panama Leaks is an issue in the rest of the world, the Supreme Court registrar initially refused to register our petition, terming it ‘frivolous.’ Now the Supreme Court has reversed that decision. But we are doing this march to Raiwind to build pressure.
You can bring out 20 thousand people, but if they sit on a plot of land, they won’t be noticed and no one will bother. The system has impelled us to vent our frustration by coming onto the streets, block the roads, bring the system to a halt, and then we will be heard. By their actions and the lack of accountability, the concerned authorities are encouraging the system to be derailed.