The ride on the main road running across Faqir Colony is bumpy and angular. The street is kutcha, there are no street lights, and some large potholes transition seamlessly into sewers. With the area braving a spell of power loadshedding, there is little visibility at night, and yet, there is much to discover: in aesthetics, demographics and development, this area mirrors Lyari sans the romance of Lyari. This is UC-21 as per Karachi’s new delimitations — the seat of an “unofficial” local partnership between Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F).

We are scheduled to meet Ustad Abdullah Baloch at his mosque in this largely Baloch-populated mohalla. Ustad Abdullah Baloch is associated with the JUI-F and has been a former union council nazim. This year, he has teamed up with a community leader from the adjoining Urdu-speaking settlement of Haryana, Abdul Ghani Nagpuri, who enjoys the backing of the MQM.

Outside the mosque’s entrance, the two candidates’ electoral information and election symbol, a water melon, have been painted on a wall. For all devotees who come to pray, it is a permanent reminder of who they should be voting for.

“How did this alliance come about?”

“It was a match made in heaven,” laughs Nagpuri.

As new alliances are crafted at local levels, door-to-door campaigns have replaced the old, aggressive style of canvassing. Fear too has been replaced by political fervour, challengers to the throne are many, and all stake holders have conserved finances in preparation for a final push before polling on Saturday

UC-21 is part of the larger provincial constituency of PS-94, whose MPA from the MQM, Raza Haider, was assassinated back in 2010 in what is believed to be a politically motivated murder. In the larger constituency, all actors are present and contesting on union council seats: Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), MQM, Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), Awami National Party (ANP), Awami National Party-Wali (ANP-Wali), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and even the Rah-i-Haq Party (which includes the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat).

Given the number of available political options, why did Ustad Abdullah and Nagpuri form an independent panel?

“Alliances are created at the grassroots, not at the top,” says Nagpuri. “This is very much an alliance crafted at the local level, based around local dynamics and focussed on redressing our local complaints. And our biggest issue is water supply to both mohallas. It made sense to team up.”

There are about 12 men present in the room on the first floor of the mosque where we are seated. As the conversation progresses, it becomes clear that most activists and activists tend to use old terminology for various political parties, irrespective of their currently acceptable legal form. Therefore, MQM is Muttahida, Mohajir Qaumi Movement is Haqiqi, while ASWJ is very much Sipah, abbreviated from Sipah Sahaba Pakistan, the form that was banned in March, 2012.

“Is Muttahida acceptable to the Baloch community here, given that residents here have familial connections in Lyari?” I ask.

“That is why we chose to contest as an independent panel, because it takes time to break the barriers of hate. Of course there are reservations in our community, but the proof of whether this alliance can work will be in the pudding,” says Ustad Abdullah. “If it does, a new chapter of Baloch and Urdu-speaking amity might well have to be written. Who would have thought it would be from Faqir Colony!”

The basis of this alliance is in shared grievances. Till 2008, there was no water supply problem in the area, but things changed after a new pipeline was laid to provide water supply to Baldia. Faqir Colony lay at the tail end of Baldia, and as such, water simply disappeared from the area. Numerous complaints were lodged but all seemed to fall on deaf ears.

But Nagpuri eventually managed to secure a tanker from the water board for Haryana. The tanker was to come every second day, and water was distributed in canisters to various residents. When Ustad Abdullah found out, he requested Nagpuri to help them procure water as well. Although the government could send more water, the two adjoining neighbourhoods began sharing whatever water that was sent to them. This lay the foundations of a lasting partnership.

“Our experience the last time around was that nobody wanted to work for this area. The last UC nazim from this area complained that since he was from the PPP, funds were not being released to him by the Mustafa Kamal-led government. But perhaps he had little will to pull connections and get things done — is it possible for a representative of the provincial government to hold such little sway in the corridors of power?” asks Ustad Abdullah.

“Everyone is contesting from Lines Area, since the fear factor has lessened somewhat. But there are also a number of independent panels — for many, it is a way of protecting themselves by not having any political association and therefore not inviting any opposition either.

The PPP connection last time around had also burdened the area with the People’s Amn Committee (PAC), which had sought to extend its tentacles from Lyari to other Baloch-dominated localities in Karachi. Crime in Faqir Colony went up as did drug peddling, say residents. With Ustad Abdullah supporting the PPP the last time around, some residents even allege that his mosque provided sanctuary to PAC workers. There is a hint too that the dug up main road in the area helped criminal elements escape from the clutches of law enforcement.

This time, the PPP has had to face the music due to its non-performance the last time around.

“In one-and-a-half-wards of this area, it became difficult for the PPP to find candidates for chairman and vice-chairman. Much like Lyari, another Baloch settlement has refused to vote for them,” claims Ustad Abdullah.

“Part of the reason is that even little tasks such as attestation became chores for the people of the neighbourhood. We generally carry official seals and stamps in our pocket, so that we can help people on the spot. The PPP nazim wanted them to come to his office for attestation during working hours. People didn’t take too kindly to that,” he says.

And how is the new relationship with the MQM coming along?

“It is eye-opening. They operate on a different level, with very comprehensive homework. We receive a call everyday from Nine Zero to ask about canvassing activities, who we’ve met thus far, who we need to meet, our canvassing schedules, our voter lists ... it is very different to what we used to do in the past,” says Ustad Abdullah.

“That should also tell you that we have the blessings of our respective parties,” interjects Nagpuri. “We went to Nine Zero, we have had meetings with our MPA, Saifuddin Khalid, and even they thought it best to contest as an independent panel in this locality.”

And what is the significance of the watermelon as their electoral symbol?

“It is more out of necessity than out of choice,” says Nagpuri. “Most symbols were metallic objects — knives, for example — and we wanted to stay away from things that remind people of violence. Watermelons were eventually left as the only mutually acceptable options. Of course, our poster now has three very important colours: red, green and white — the colours on the MQM flag. That was important too.”

Meanwhile, at MQM headquarters, party spokesman Amin-ul-Haq argues that independent panels such as the Ustad Abdullah-Nagpuri one are exactly that: independent.

“The Memon community, for example, has set up their panels across the city. They are strong in Kharadar, Meethadar and Mehmoodabad among other areas. Then they bargained with various political actors; it is through this process that many of these panels have aligned with the PTI.

“On 179 out of 209 seats, we are contesting directly. On the rest, we are supporting like-minded people and supporters. They’ll be elected as independents and they’ll work as independents. On an official level, the MQM is not in alliance with anyone,” reasserts Haq.

Between the Lines

It is late evening but there is nobody present at the office of Muttahida’s Unit 52, Lines Area Sector. Situated in the midst of a bustling market, this compact space is identifiable from afar because it hoists gigantic party flags and even Altaf Hussain posters. But neighbours and shopkeepers say the office is seldom open these days.

“These are election days, maybe that’s why they aren’t here,” says an elderly neighbour.

And what of the many other flags that have been hoisted in the area?

“Everyone is contesting from Lines Area, since the fear factor has lessened somewhat. But there are also a number of independent panels — for many, it is a way of protecting themselves by not having any political association and therefore not inviting any opposition either,” says the elderly man.

Later that evening, senior MQM leader Wasim Akhtar is scheduled for door-to-door campaigning in Lines Area. His contingent is small: a police mobile van and a health department van accompany him. There are a couple of dozen motorbikes too, most of whom joined the caravan from Lines Area.

Also part of Akhtar’s itinerary is a visit to meet the family of a detained party activist named Rao Shafaqat — the in-charge of Unit 52.

“We recognise that he is innocent. Election campaigning is not a crime, your son has done no wrong,” Akhtar assures Shafaqat’s mother.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes in court,” replies Shafaqat’s mother, “there were mothers whose sons had been picked up without cause since nine months. Our one-month ordeal seems trivial in comparison.”

Shafaqat’s arrest was officially shown on November 4, but the family says he had been arrested about a week or 10 days before that. He was only permitted to meet his loved ones on the 19th, and the family finally met on the 20th.

“It’s the same story in many other homes. They have arrested so many people that their jails are well over capacity now. Majority of our people have been arrested on trumped up charges by the Rangers,” the senior MQM leader assures the mother.

“The PPP connection last time around had also burdened the area with the People’s Amn Committee, which had sought to extend its tentacles from Lyari to other Baloch-dominated localities in Karachi. Crime in Faqir Colony went up as did drug peddling, say residents. With Ustad Abdullah supporting the PPP the last time around, some residents even allege that his mosque provided sanctuary to PAC workers.

Shafaqat’s uncle soon joins the conversation with political talk.

“All else is well but Haqiqi’s boys come late at night to remove our flags from the area. They terrorise people into removing flags and decorations,” alleges the uncle.

“Yes, 2.30am every night,” another female family member chimes in.

“Don’t worry about it. Flags are irrelevant, it’s about who rules Mohajir hearts and that is MQM. Kites will soar and candles will be burnt out,” replies Akhtar.

“I have told everyone to ensure complete participation; we have to reply with our mandate,” nods the defiant uncle.

Akhtar soon makes way to another apartment building to comfort and provide support to another detained activist’s family. He too was a member of Unit 52, say gathered neighbours.

With the senior MQM leader receiving summons for a meeting at party headquarters Nine Zero, canvassing for the evening is cut short. But as soon as Akhtar reaches his parked car, a group of rival activists chant slogans at his contingent.

“RAW kay agenton ko … aik dhakka aur do.”

Akhtar instructs a policy of no confrontation to his comrades. His car takes a 90 degree turn right, away from the Haqiqi activists, and speeds off into the distance. With the crowd dispersing soon as well, Haqiqi activists return to doing what they were: pinning party flags atop utility poles.

“Media wallay never come to us,” complains the chant master.

“We organised the largest rally in Karachi these elections, but there was no coverage,” says another. “It originated here; we had about 2,500 participants from Lines Area. Then we went to Shah Faisal and then onwards to Landhi. I’d estimate there were about 8,000 participants.”

I am led to a market with a row of shops; this space is doubling up as Haqiqi’s election office. Inside, the shutters have been dropped on all but three shops. There are flags and banners, there is some paperwork too.

“We are contesting to win, not just to make up the numbers,” asserts one activist.

Haqiqi workers proudly explain that they are now divided into zones rather than sectors. Party discipline dictates that they cannot issue statements or publicise their names and designations; we agree to have a discussion without the need for names.

Sluggish business today has meant that the traditional buzz around election activity is somewhat muted, since traders don’t have much cash to invest in candidates’ campaigns.

“There are four issues that plague this area,” begins one. “The most immediate is electricity: they send bloated bills and ask us to pay in instalments. Nobody comes to check the meters; we are sent bills on arbitrary readings. The units that they charge are far greater than those consumed.”

“Once consumers are sent their bloated bills, they are expected to go to various contractors, each of whom is connected with officers in the power utility,” alleges another. “These contractors then fix a certain amount as down-payment and adjust the rest as monthly instalments. It is an organised scam; you can call it a new form of extorting money.”

“Then there is the issue of our sewers; most of them are clogged,” says a third participant of the discussion. “The general cleanliness of this union council, UC 10, is very low because out of 164 janitors hired by the metropolitan corporation, only six or seven show up for work. The one who does the most work is an old hunchback, but the others are largely political appointees. They don’t want to work.”

“The last issue is more long term,” says an elderly Haqiqi activist. “It pertains to the resettlement of those who were moved to Mehmoodabad when the New Preedy Street was being constructed.”

Those whom the elderly activist refers to are hundreds of families who were shifted away from Lines Area and given plots of land in Mehmoodabad, a locality which used to be dominated by the PPP. The resettlement of these families came about on the pretext of development under the Mustafa Kamal-led local government, but the opposition in the City Council alleged at the time that the move was meant to swell Muttahida votes in the area.

“That resettlement was never taken to its logical conclusion. People didn’t get ownership rights; the land where they were sent is still contentious. Many of those people are in permanent limbo,” says the elderly activist.

The conversation soon turns to the history of UC-10 and whether it is or has been a no-go area of sorts.

“The past was very violent indeed; we all fought each other. The conflict isn’t as sharp now, lots has happened in the past two decades,” says the elderly activist. Another describes how Haqiqi activists had to be on the run for years to save their lives.

“But Muttahida terms you terrorists; even today, their voter complained to Wasim Akhter that you folks have been terrorising them and removing their party flags and banners,” I interjected.

“Do you spot that green grill outside?” asks an activist.

I nodded.

“That divides our area from Muttahida’s area. On the right to that grill are Haqiqi party flags and banners; on the left are all Muttahida flags and banners. These allegations have no basis in truth,” he argues.

Is there no hope for reconciliation and merger between the two factions?

“Our grouse with Muttahida is over the use of violence, nothing else. Urdu-speaking people need to understand that we will no longer be in majority in this city, other ethnic groups are swelling in population but our people are ignorant of this reality,” says one.

“Muttahida gives them short-term solutions, such as resorting to violence or encouraging people to cheat their way through. Our children are pushed into crime, whereas we should have been educating them about how to safeguard their future. The Urdu-speaking used to pride themselves on being cultured, but without education, we are losing that heritage,” says the elderly activist.

“In politics, you can never say never. But till such time that Muttahida continues in their violent vein, we can’t possibly have any serious conversation about re-joining forces. Even today, despite their arrests, their position is that they’ll take on the chief minister if development money is curtailed. It is an attitude problem, that violence will fix everything,” concludes a senior activist.

Rebooting PPP?

Ali Ahmed of the PPP contested elections in 2013 on the NA-241 seat but things could not have been more different this time around.

“Every day was a challenge back then,” says Ahmed. “There was an everyday fear about who would issue a threat to kill me today, or who’d threaten to kidnap my children. This time, I have peace of mind.”

Ahmed is the PPP president for PS-93 and also a member of its Sindh Council. A naturalised Afghan now, he is now leading an alliance in Metroville comprised of the PPP, JUI-F, ANP and ANP-Wali. In principle, all these parties have some ideological underpinning. Has the age of ideological politics returned?

“It is well and truly alive, because younger generations are stepping forward to carry forward our message. The idea is to have democratic co-existence — that we can all stick to our ideologies without having to abandon our principles, and that we can all serve the people together,” argues Ahmed.

And what of Sipah? Does it pose a credible threat to the PPP in the locality?

“Their sectarianism means that they are not successful in this area,” he replies, arguing that the Rah-i-Haq Party did not find enough time to plan their campaign strategy either. Delayed responses meant that they lost political initiative to their rivals.

While Ahmed’s campaign marks a return of the PPP as legitimate power brokers in the area, there is talk of grassroots restructuring having been crucial in this return.

“When Bilawal was addressing his rally on October 18 last year, I didn’t take anybody there. There were ANP cadres who had left their party and wanted to join us back then, but we didn’t admit anybody. That would not have been an organic way of doing things,” he says.

In the last local government, complain residents of the area, the ANP (then a united party) had siphoned water from residential areas to factories. Would such a dynamic have an impact on Ahmed’s campaign, given that water supply is a crucial issue in the constituency?

“We want to look forward rather than back,” he says. “This time, local government falls under the auspices of the provincial government, so it will be easier to help people out. The ANP has already paid the price for whatever it did, it is now time to set things right.”

Meanwhile, notwithstanding Ahmed’s assertions and optimism, the PPP’s local party in UC-3, Muzaffarabad Colony, Karachi has aligned with the Rah-i-Haq Party for local government elections. The alliance is under the banner of the PPP, not as independents either. Clearly, there is an information gap between various chapters of the party in the same city.

Winning with welfare?

Inside a narrow square shop in UC-21 is the election office of the PML-N. Their candidate: the chief of the Attock Welfare Committee in the area, Manzoor Hussain.

“We bring a bloc of votes from the Attock biraderi. My father was the welfare committee chief before, now I have been assigned this responsibility,” says Hussain. “We have pedigree in solving people’s affairs and our community wanted us to think bigger and benefit the area proper. In the absence of new options, we became the newest option.”

Seated next to him is Qazi Azhar Shahzad, the UC president of the PML-N who was formerly part of Sipah. “We chose our candidate first, then we chose the platform. This main road was built by the PML-N in 1997. Ever since, it has not been carpeted even once.”

Their political adversaries describe this panel as one with longer-term objectives. This is an assessment Hussain and Shahzad agree with.

“We want to know where we stand on our own, and how much work needs to go in from now till the next National Assembly elections,” says Shazad.

But in theory, they have many electoral points to exploit.

“You have seen water is such a crucial issue here, but in the last government, the Amn Committee sold water connections to various actors. Nobody could stop them, and they even installed boosters at various points in the supply line to ensure provision of water to their clients. It was all illegal,” complains Shahzad.

“There is also a shortage of electricity supply,” says Hussain. “There used to be three PMTs in the area, but about a year ago, one was shut off. Local PPP leaders resolved to get it fixed, but eventually, the PMT was removed from the area altogether.”

Then there is the issue of kunda (hook connection) bills.

“They charge us Rs770 per month, but nobody comes to read the kunda meters in our homes.Bills are sent on official paperwork, and are divided equally among the community,” adds Hussain.

Both men point the finger at the PPP and MQM for having kept the area under-developed, but argue that the Karachi Operation has broken the environment of fear that had gripped their area.

“When big fish are being caught across the city, it gives the little guy hope that perhaps the winds are changing and perhaps we can now stand up to terror,” says Hussain. “That is what we have done — standing up to the same, old rhetoric from the same, old candidates.”

Market spin

A large banner praising General Raheel Sharif and the armed forces greets your arrival to Saddar’s electronics market. Shopkeepers say that the banner, printed by a society of traders of the market, was put up soon after Rangers personnel conducted a raid at the market, in search of phones and devices that were imported without duty or had been stolen and resold to mobile sellers.

“Business has been slow since that day, imagine a 60 or 70 per cent hit to sales,” says Kaleem, a mobile seller in Star City, the plaza that bore the brunt of the Rangers operation. “People here have stocks worth millions of rupees, but the operation has served to dissuade people to buy from here. I have only sold three phones today, all were used.”

Standing next to Kaleem is Altaf, another shopkeeper who had made his way over to Kaleem’s shop since he had no business either.

“Think of the perception created by the Rangers raid among common and honest shopkeepers, the perception that we take home with us,” argues Altaf. “Stolen goods are a huge problem for us too, it negatively skews sales of imported goods. But if common people’s livelihoods are affected adversely, they will also begin to argue that the raid was not a positive step.”

On the other side of the city, in Tariq Road’s mobile phone market, mobile seller Arif Teddy says that the Rangers raid might have been aimed at Star City but its tremors have been felt in other mobile markets of the city too.

“Customers these days are generally looking for the new iPhone 6 series, but what is sellable now are local brands. They raided shops in search of iPhones that made their way into the market without paying import duty — this makes it a Customs’ issue rather than a shopkeepers’ issue,” says Teddy.

The mobile seller further argues that were a mechanism to exist to levy import duties, it would encourage associated businesses — mobile casing, screen covers, headphones, Bluetooth etc— to flourish as well.

But sluggish business today has meant that the traditional buzz around election activity is somewhat muted, since traders don’t have much cash to invest in candidates’ campaigns.

“You may see a rise in activity in the last five days or so,” predicts Teddy. “People have limited cash available. In this market too, we have been selling products to each other to take cash home and make ends meet. Nobody is willing to spend much now, they want to save up if they can and then spend in the last week when they’ll be able to draw maximum returns from their investment.”

Teddy then lets on that he has been working with the PTI in Garden West, after they officered him the post of chairman for UC-118. The other actors, he says, didn’t make much of an effort to woo him and by the time they did, it was too late.

“A high-powered PTI delegation came to my house to sort matters out, and included Arif Alavi too. Once we had decided to go ahead, Jamaat’s candidates wanted the post of chairman. So I withdrew graciously and told them that they could bring candidates on both seats if they wanted. Then I helped the PTI form a panel in Ghanchi Para,” says the mobile seller.

Earlier in the day, I had met a number of jewellers and cloth sellers on Tariq Road, many of them Memons. There was some support for the Jamaat among these traders — as well as the lament that on posters and banners hoisted in the area, their candidate was relegated to second.

“They are good people, but PTI has not really entered local politics through market committees. It really isn’t a player in this area, and I don’t understand why the chairman is not a Jamaat candidate,” one jeweller had argued.

I put the argument before Teddy.

“If they are claiming that, then they are naïve,” retorts Teddy. “In residential areas of this locality, PTI dominates and people want to vote for us. Had it been Gulshan-i-Iqbal, then yes, you could argue that Jamaat becomes a player in certain areas. But not here. In this locality, it is about various communities forming their independent panels and then deciding which party will serve their interests best.”

The mobile seller then explains that had the traders of Tariq Road also been permanent residents of the area, they would have had a greater say in matters of local governance. But since they are merely visitors, who arrive in the daytime and leave at night, they don’t count for much in voting terms.

“For voting calculations, we have to keep residents and communities in mind,” he says. “The Memon community, for example, has set up their panels across the city. They are strong in Kharadar, Meethadar and Mehmoodabad among other areas. Then they bargained with various political actors; it is through this process that many of these panels have aligned with the PTI.”

Meanwhile on the main road, pushcart vendor Mohammad Khan complains of little or no canvassing in the area.

“Muttahida’s lack of campaigning has meant that others too have taken it easy this time,” argues Khan. “Today, the Rangers have removed all Altaf Hussain posters from Tariq Road, apparently in pursuance of a court order. If the biggest player is not playing, how can you expect others to come to the party?”

The writer tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 29th, 2015


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