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The politics of fear

Updated June 28, 2015


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

TO the average, apolitical observer, the politics of Sindh makes little sense. MQM in Karachi, Hyderabad; PPP in interior Sindh — it adds up to quite the horror show.

Sure, the mercenary politics of Punjab, the tribalism of Balochistan and the ruthlessness of the Peshawar valley have their own peculiarities. But what the heck is up with Sindh?

Now that the boys have decided to take on cleaning up Sindh a bit, that question is being asked in nuanced and glib ways. The nuanced variation is, what’s the endgame here?

Any which way you look at it, even if you factor in decapitation, it’s not like the MQM and the PPP will simply dissolve under pressure.

Any which way you look at it, even if you factor in decapitation, it’s not like the MQM and the PPP will simply dissolve under pressure.

But then, if you unpack what is being attempted, at its core it amounts to a re-engineering of the two parties. After all, if the baseline is the elimination or surgical separation of the MQM’s militant wing, would not that cause the party itself to collapse?

And if the baseline with the PPP is choking off Asif and Faryal’s epic plunder, would that not fundamentally alter the party set-up in Sindh? Hence, the nuanced question: what’s the endgame here? IE do the boys really know what they’re doing?

The glib variation is, why are the MQM and PPP so impervious to disaster?

Punjab swaps its mercenaries around; the Peshawar valley has swung MMA, ANP and PTI in three successive elections; hell, even Balochistan mixes up its winning permutation of sardars and tribals from election to election.

But no matter what the MQM does to Karachi and Hyderabad and no matter what the PPP does to Sindh, they get voted in — 90pc Karachi, Hyderabad to MQM; 60pc interior Sindh to PPP.

It’s manifestly self-defeating — and yet, the vote is real and not significantly coerced. Sure, the MQM pads its seat count through brute force and the PPP has its regressive landowners, but a great deal of the support for both parties is genuine.

Perhaps though the nuanced and the glib questions have a common answer: Sindh is about the politics of fear. A double-layered fear, the first of the Mohajirs within Sindh and the second of the Sindhis within the federation. Fear — and look away now if you’re a supporter of either — is perhaps the essence of the MQM and the PPP vote banks.

There is no one history of the Mohajir in Sindh. Even between the neighbours Karachi and Hyderabad the trajectories were different and the responses to religious, liberal and nationalist influences varied. But if time can be measured in Sindh — post-Partition Sindh, that is — there is the pre-language riots and the post-language riots of the early 1970s.

The language dispute pit the educated, plugged-into-the-state-apparatus, job-holding, middle-class Mohajir against a new, eternal rival: the newly educated, wanting-to-plug-into-the-state-apparatus, white-collar-job-seeking, rising-middle-class Sindhi.

Curiously, Altaf’s great contribution was to paper over this rivalry. Altaf’s brand of Mohajir nationalism centred, originally, not on suspicion of Sindhis, but on anti-settlerism, ie anti-Punjab, anti-Pakhtun.

But that recalibration couldn’t hide the basic dynamic: the Mohajirs needed a strong, muscular, singular party to protect their jobs, to protect the resources they commanded, to protect their place in the provincial pecking order and to protect the Mohajir’s image of himself.

Minus the MQM, there is really no one to prevent a siphoning off of resources from the Mohajir to the Sindhi and the Sindhi potentially squashing the Mohajir. Many a Sindhi would scoff at that possibility, but that’s the thing about fear: it responds to what is imagined, not what is likely.

Which is why, much as you can find disquiet within the MQM’s support base at the party’s long slide towards a mafia-esque existence, the supporter remains loyal: the Mohajir needs the MQM more than perhaps the MQM needs the Mohajir.

With the Sindhi you can sense a similar contradiction: in the instinctive veneration of the Bhuttos of yore, there is perhaps a deep unease with the PPP of today. But an old logic still applies.

The PPP was and is the only vehicle for the Sindhi to be able to press his case at the national level, inside the federation. ZAB was the dream in that he could woo and win in Punjab too, assuring the Sindhi that his interests would never be harmed at the centre.

Minus the PPP, the Sindhi is left with the fractious nationalist alternative and a scrabble of useless winners who can barely project power outside their constituencies. Minus the PPP, the Sindhi has no one who can lobby on his behalf and fight for his rights against the dominant Punjab at the centre.

Minus the PPP, the Sindhi is vulnerable. And so they keep voting PPP.

There is another part to it, to the staticness in Sindh. The PTI missed a trick in Sindh because when the Mohajir showed some interest in the PTI, the PTI didn’t reciprocate. The Mohajir, especially the white-collar, educated, aspirational Mohajir, is a natural fit for the PTI’s urban-centric politics — and the Mohajir need not worry about the PTI aligning with the PPP.

But Imran showed little interest in anything outside Punjab and that was that.

With the Sindhi, some among its burgeoning middle class wonder why it has not sprouted an alternative to the PPP and the coterie of nationalists and thugs. But they also tend to answer their own question: the dirty little secret of interior Sindh is that the PPP has bought off the middle class too, fattened it to the point of stupor and numbed its instinct for political dissent and organisation.

So, there it is. The MQM may be a monstrosity and Zardari’s PPP may be a monstrosity, but both stand on old edifices of fear — the Mohajir’s fear inside Sindh and the Sindhi’s fear inside the federation.

Which goes back to the nuanced question: what’s the endgame here? IE do the boys really know what they’re doing?

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2015

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