A dangerous divide

Published October 29, 2014
The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

It is not hard to guess why the MQM is often described as the enfant terrible of Pakistani politics. The party has once again stirred a hornet’s nest of ethnic politics by demanding the carving up of Sindh to create a new ‘Mohajir’ province. After its failed experiment focusing on the creation of a new multi-ethnic identity for itself, the MQM has now returned to its original politics.

The MQM’s move to once again play the Mohajir card appears to be a desperate attempt to revitalise its support base that is being challenged by emerging political forces. This narrow political approach is a dangerous game that may further widen the divisions among various ethnic groups in the province.

It is shocking the way the MQM has invoked the blasphemy law against PPP leader Khursheed Shah for making a rather benign remark on the term ‘Mohajir’. It is yet more surprising for it to mix religion with politics, since it is one of the very few political parties in Pakistan that genuinely espouses secularism.

This senseless campaign has only damaged the MQM’s own image and diverted attention from some more relevant issues that need to be addressed urgently to resolve the main source of discontent in Karachi. The old habit of throwing a tantrum and quitting the coalition government only to reverse the decision is making a mockery of the party. But this time the separation seems more serious, although one can never be sure it will agree to be the PPP’s political bedfellow again after some pampering.

The local government system, and not divisive slogans, should be the MQM’s focus.

The on-again, off-again relationship between the two most powerful political forces in the province is not the only reason behind the lingering unrest in Karachi. By raising ethnic slogans, the MQM leadership is only obscuring the issue of reviving the local government system that should have been its main focus.

In fact, the politics of ethnicity also suits the PPP. That is very much evident as it increasingly whips up Sindhi nationalist sentiments in an attempt to perpetuate its control over the rural areas. It also explains the reason behind the scathing attack against the MQM by Bilawal Bhutto and the slogan of ‘Merveysun, merveysun, per Sindh na desun’ (we will die but not give away Sindh). But it is not sure whether it will boost the PPP’s diminishing political base in its rural bastion.

While it is true that the division of Sindh on ethnic or even administrative lines is unacceptable, it is also a fact that the failure of the PPP government to restore an elected city government system has given impetus to the MQM’s ethnic-based politics. We have now seen more than six years of a PPP-led government in the province, yet hopes of reviving the local government were aroused only after the intervention of the Supreme Court.

Last week, the Sindh Assembly finally approved an amendment in the Sindh Local Government Act, 2013, and accorded powers to the Election Commission of Pakistan for the delimitation of constituencies before holding municipal elections.

In a significant departure from the 2001 act, the new law has drastically curtailed the powers of the city government limiting their functions to basic municipal services. The provincial government retains most of the key subjects, such as security and land management. Similarly, financial powers of the metropolitan corporations have also been restricted. The strong control of the provincial government remains a major source of contention between the PPP and MQM.

It is apparent that the provincial government is unwilling to fully devolve powers to the city at the local level. This is particularly true in the case of Karachi because of its peculiar ethnic balance as well as its status as the provincial capital. A major reason for not devolving power is to have control over the vast resources of the city, particularly its land.

Greater administrative autonomy is ideally required to effectively run a megacity like Karachi with an estimated population of around 18 to 20 million. Nevertheless, the restoration of an elected local government system, even with limited municipal powers, may help to deal with some of the problems faced by Karachi and other major cities of the province.

But there are many more obstacles in the way before local elections are made possible. The most contentious part is the delimitation of the constituencies, now the responsibility of the ECP. Then there is the issue of transparency in the electoral process. With the deteriorating law and order situation in the city and the hold of criminal mafias, patronised by various political parties, a fair and free local government election would not be easy. The MQM’s campaign for a separate province and the widening ethnic divide has made the situation more volatile.

With its fast-changing demographic balance, it has become imperative for Karachi to have an elected and representative local government. According to some reports, the population of the city is estimated to have doubled since 1998. It is obvious that this phenomenal rise is mainly due to the massive migration from other parts of the country.

The fast-changing demography has also changed the political dynamics of Pakistan’s biggest metropolis. It has truly become a melting pot of people from different ethnic and linguistic backgrounds. We also see the third generation of immigrants from India growing up here, therefore one can hardly describe them as Mohajirs. The politics of exclusiveness in a multi-ethnic city can be a disastrous gamble.

It is a mistake on the part of the MQM to attempt to return to ethnic-based politics or use religion to settle political scores. The MQM may have been able to retain its dominance in the last parliamentary elections, but now its hold has come under serious challenge For its own political survival, the MQM needs to review its politics of ethnicity.

The writer is an author and journalist.


Twitter: @hidhussain



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