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The Karachi context: cities within a city

Karachi confuses people – sometimes even those who live in it.

The capital of Pakistan’s Sindh province, it is the country’s largest city – a colossal, ever-expanding metropolis with a population of above 20 million (and growing).

It is also the country’s most ethnically diverse city. But over the last three decades, this diversity largely consists of bulky groups of homogenous ethnic populations that mostly reside in their own areas of influence and majority, only interacting and intermingling with other ethnic groups in the city’s more neutral points of economic and recreational activity.

That’s why Karachi may also give the impression of being a city holding various small cities — cities within a city.

Karachi’s clustered ethnic diversity.
Karachi’s clustered ethnic diversity.

Apart from this aspect of its clustered ethnic diversity, the city also hosts a number of people belonging to various Muslim sects and sub-sects. There are also quite a few Christians (both Catholic and Protestant), Hindus and Zoroastrians here.

Many pockets in the city are exclusively dedicated to housing only the Shia sect and various Sunni sub-sects. Even Hindu and Christian populations are sometimes settled in and around tiny areas where they are in a majority, further reflecting the city’s clustered diversity.

The survival and economic viability of the more neutral spaces depends on these spaces remaining largely detached from matters of ethnic and sectarian/sub-sectarian claims and biases.

Such spaces include areas that hold the city’s various private multinational and state organisations, bazaars, factories, shopping malls and major recreational spots.

Karachi: ever-expanding.
Karachi: ever-expanding.

Whereas the clustered areas have often witnessed ethnic and sectarian strife and violence mainly due to one cluster of the ethnic/sectarian/sub-sectarian population accusing the other of encroaching upon their area, the neutral points and zones have remained somewhat conflict-free.

The neutral points have enjoyed a relatively strife-free environment due to them being multicultural and also because here is where the writ of the state and government is most present and appreciated.

However, since all this has helped the neutral zones to generate much of the economic capital that the city generates, these neutral spaces have become a natural target of crimes such as robberies, muggings, kidnapping for ransom, extortion, etc.

The criminals in this respect usually emerge from the clustered areas that have become extremely congested, stagnant and cut-off from most of the state and government institutions, and ravaged by decades of ethnic and sectarian violence.

Police commandos patrol Karachi’s low-income Kati Pahari (Split Mountain) area. One side of the hill is populated by Mohajirs and the other by Pakhtuns.
Police commandos patrol Karachi’s low-income Kati Pahari (Split Mountain) area. One side of the hill is populated by Mohajirs and the other by Pakhtuns.

Though the ethnic, sectarian/intra-sectarian, economic and political interests of the clustered areas are ‘protected’ by various legal, as well as some banned political outfits in their own areas of influence, all these outfits compete with each other for their respective economic interests in the neutral zones because here is where much of the money is.

Though highly complex, large and chaotic, Karachi has always remained to be perhaps the most socially liberal city in the country.

This is mainly due to the fact that the kind of staggering ethnic and sectarian, sub-sectarian and religious diversity that it enjoys, this combination does not allow any one ethnic or religious group to dominate such a vast and diverse city.

This is why the city’s largest political outfit, the Mohajir-ethnic Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), has constantly evolved a strategy that not only promises to safeguard the political and economic interests of the Mohajir (Urdu-speaking) majority of the city; the party has consciously put forward a front absorbed from the kind of urban social liberalism that Karachi’s diverse make-up has weaved, especially the inherent social liberalism of the Mohajir community which the MQM has merged with the group’s once disjointed political psyche.

The election

Karachi hasn’t sprung a lot of electoral surprises ever since the 1988 general election. The liberal Mohajir-nationalist party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), has been sweeping the polls in this vast, complex metropolis for over 25 years now.

However, during this year’s local bodies’ election in the city, a surprise did spring up.

But, it had nothing to do with MQM, as such, because the party once again swept an election in the city.

The bulk of the party’s seats were again won in urban middle and lower-middle class areas dominated by the Mohajir community.

Here the party also received a majority of votes from Karachi’s Shias (‘Twelvers’), the Ismailis (‘Agha Khanis’), Christians and Hindus.

Interestingly, till the early 1990s, the Shia votes and those of the ‘minorities’ in Karachi used to go to the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), but these votes have been increasingly casted in favour of the MQM for the past decade or so.

It is believed that a large section of the city’s Shia, Ismaili and Christian vote-bank had shifted in favour of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in the 2013 general election, but almost the entire vote-bank of this nature returned to the MQM during the 2015 local election.

MQM flags flutter in a Mohajir-majority area in Karachi.
MQM flags flutter in a Mohajir-majority area in Karachi.

The main surprise in this year’s local bodies’ election in Karachi is largely associated with the PTI.

In the 2013 general election, though the MQM won a majority of seats in Karachi, Imran Khan’s center-right Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), had suddenly emerged as the second largest political outfit in the chaotic metropolis.

Though PTI won just one National Assembly and three Provincial Assembly seats from Karachi, the number of votes that the party received was a lot larger compared to the votes received by the city’s two other established parties, the left-liberal Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the right-wing/religious Jamat-i-Islami (JI).

On almost every seat contested in 2013 by the MQM, the PTI had come second, sometimes too close for comfort for various MQM electoral starlets.

The PTI had gained from votes casted by disgruntled PPP and MQM voters and also by the votes of the city’s large Pashto-speaking community which, till 2008, had largely voted either for the left-wing Pakhtun nationalist, Awami National Party (ANP), or various religious groups.

Another major factor for the PTI’s spontaneous electoral expansion in Karachi were the large number of first-time voters who turned up to vote for the party in 2013.

A majority of these came from Karachi’s affluent areas and were a mixture of middle- and upper-middle class Mohajirs, Punjabis, Pakhtuns and even some Sindhis.

The ‘affluent’ wait to cast their vote in a Karachi constituency in 2013.
The ‘affluent’ wait to cast their vote in a Karachi constituency in 2013.

However, just two years after extemporaneously emerging as Karachi’s second largest political party, the PTI suffered an equally sudden and awkward fall when it came 5th in this December’s local elections in the sprawling city.

This, despite the fact that it was contesting in alliance with the JI.

The PTI’s main 2013 voters (the affluent first-timers) did not come out, maybe repulsed by the chaotic state that the party finds itself in today and also perhaps due to the party’s strategy to get into an electoral alliance with the JI.

Interestingly, various JI voters went on record too, bemoaning their party’s alliance with the PTI which, though, is right-of-center and allied with the JI in KP’s provincial government, it is not as much towards the right as the JI has traditionally been.

The MQM belligerently regained the ground that it had ceded to the PTI during the 2013 election by winning a whopping 268 seats (out of a total of 450 local bodies seats in the city); whereas the PTI-JI alliance could win a combined number of just 35 seats, with the PTI winning only 19 and the JI, a dismal 16.

It seems both the parties had devised their election strategy based not on the complex ground realties of the city, but on the largely ill-informed perceptions of Karachi that are often aired by a majority of populist TV analysts.

MQM supporters celebrating their party’s victory.
MQM supporters celebrating their party’s victory.

Another surprise was the way the left-leaning PPP, which was severely marginalised in Karachi during the 2013 general election, made a comeback of sorts in the city during this year’s local elections.

The PPP had continued to maintain its status of being the city’s second largest electoral group ever since the late 1980s, but it had fallen to a dismal 4th position (in the number of votes received) in the city during the 2013 general election.

During this year’s local elections in the metropolis, however, the PPP managed to reemerge as Karachi’s second largest political party, winning 62 seats.

It had already won a huge majority in the local elections held in the rest of the Sindh province, so it was important for the party to exhibit some sort of a revival in the province’s burgeoning capital, Karachi.

Much of its votes came from the city’s Baloch and Sindhi dominated working-class areas.

A PPP election rally in Karachi’s Malir district from where it won a number of seats.
A PPP election rally in Karachi’s Malir district from where it won a number of seats.

Most interestingly, in UC30, a local bodies’ constituency, which is part of the large NA250 National Assembly constituency, the PPP almost defeated the joint PTI-JI candidate.

The PPP had come 5th in NA250 during the 2013 election. The constituency was won by the PTI by a handsome margin.

But this year in UC30 which, though, did not consist of the NA250’s most affluent area (DHA), it still contained various other affluent zones, such as Bath Island, Clifton Khakashan and Park Lane.

Yet, the margin of victory of the PTI-JI candidate was slim. Detailed record of the polling here suggests that the PPP received a bulk of the votes from low-income areas of UC30 that have sprung up here and mostly house those serving as maids, cooks and drivers in the homes of the area’s more affluent residents.

The record also suggests that the PPP was winning UC30 until the JI managed to pull in a last-minute surge from the area’s more conservative sections.

PTI chief, Imran Khan, and JI chief, Sirajul Haq, lead a rally in Karachi for the 2015 local bodies’ election here. Both parties were, however, routed in the election.
PTI chief, Imran Khan, and JI chief, Sirajul Haq, lead a rally in Karachi for the 2015 local bodies’ election here. Both parties were, however, routed in the election.

Another surprise in the mentioned elections is one that has astonishingly not been commented upon much by analysts.

It has to do with the performance of the moderate center-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in Karachi.

The PML-N had swept the 2013 general election and then raced ahead in Punjab’s local elections held this year between November and December.

Even though the PML-N has a majority in the National Assembly and in the Punjab and Balochistan Provincial Assemblies, it has remained weak in Sindh and its capital Karachi.

However, in this year’s local polls in interior Sindh, the PML-N managed to bag 87 seats, coming in 4th, behind the Sindh-centric Muslim League faction, the PML-F (102), MQM (122) and the PPP (1,698) – out of a total 2,382 seats.

In the local polls in Sindh’s capital, Karachi, when most of the attention of the media was focused on MQM’s sweep, the PPP’s comeback, and on the PTI-JI alliance’s sudden fall, the PML-N had slipped in to win 35 seats here, quietly becoming the third largest party in the city.

A bulk of the disgruntled PTI voters from the Pakhtun, Hindko and Punjabi communities of the city opted to vote for the PML-N.

The party also won seats in PPP’s traditional stronghold, Lyari, which is dominated by working-class Baloch and lower-middle-class Katchi community. It is likely that most of the Katchi votes here went to the PML-N.

The PML-N also seems to have gained from the relatively better law and order situation in Karachi in the last one year.

This is due to the widespread operation against clandestine criminal groups in the city. The operation was initiated by the military and the PML-N government at the centre. It was endorsed by the PPP provincial set-up in Sindh.

The left-wing Pakhtun nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) that till 2008 had been representing the bulk of Karachi’s large Pakhtun-speaking population continued its downward momentum in the city when it could bag just 2 seats!

It had lost most of its votes to the PTI in 2013, this time these votes largely went to the PML-N and to the PPP.

A PML-N supporter.
A PML-N supporter.