Battle for Karachi

Updated 09 Sep 2020


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

IT may not be mission impossible but is certainly a massive challenge to transform a battered megalopolis. It’s not just the matter of fixing the basic civic infrastructure; it’s also about the politics of it. While the trillion-rupee package announced by the prime minister last week marked the most serious move yet to address the chronic problems of the country’s financial hub it has also intensified the battle for Karachi.

For the first time it seemed that all the stakeholders had joined hands in an effort to salvage the country’s economic lifeline. Yet the political tussle between the federal and provincial government remains a major problem in the implementation of this ambitious project. Hours after the announcement of the package, the two sides were engaged in a bitter war of words over the ownership of the plan.

More than a conflict between the federal and provincial authorities, this wrangling underscores the battle between the PPP that rules Sindh and the PTI that sees itself as the sole representative of the city and thus wants to take credit for the Karachi transformation package.

Read: Centre, Sindh spar over contribution to Karachi package

It manifests the new political dynamics that emerged in the 2018 elections. The PTI, which hardly had any representation in the national and provincial legislative bodies from Karachi in the past, swept most of the seats in the city. It created a unique situation in which a party that is in power at the centre politically dominated the provincial seat of power. So the conflict was inherent in the new political matrix.

The political tussle between the PPP and PTI is obstructing plans to transform Pakistan’s economic hub.

In the past, Karachi had been represented by the MQM, whose political base is restricted to urban Sindh. The party’s overwhelming representation from Karachi and other Sindh cities would make it critical to any coalition government in the centre as well as in the province. It was the reason for the MQM being part of almost every government at the centre and in Sindh province for nearly three decades.

With its disintegration, chiefly as a consequence of the crackdown by the security forces, the MQM lost its electoral support base in urban Sindh. The fast-changing demography of Karachi also contributed to the shrinking political space for the group that exclusively represented the Urdu-speaking population. The 2018 elections provided an ideal situation for the PTI, which claimed to have appeal across the ethnic divide.

With the split in MQM ranks and with a sympathetic security establishment behind it, the PTI unsurprisingly swept most of the seats in Karachi and emerged as the second largest party in the Sindh Assembly. Its electoral victory in the country’s largest city put the party on a strong footing in provincial politics. This completely changed the political dynamics of the troubled province.

Being the government at the centre gave the party a heady sense of power. Karachi has huge representation in the federal cabinet, and the president also belongs to the city. The statements from the federal ministers and the PTI’s provincial leadership are a clear manifestation of the power syndrome at play.

The MQM also being part of the coalition at the centre has enhanced the PTI’s political clout in the city. This also explains the demand by some PTI lawmakers for imposition of federal rule in the province. But anyone with even a little political sense knows that such a move would invite a serious political backlash.

Meanwhile, with the PPP having lost its position as one of the major national parties and virtually reduced to rural Sindh, matters have become more difficult for the provincial government. Although it still enjoys autonomy under the 18th Amendment, its lack of effective control over Karachi has weakened its authority.

The situation has become more complex with the virtual collapse of even basic civic facilities in Karachi. The havoc wreaked by the recent torrential rains has further eroded whatever support base the party has in the urban areas. The Sindh government faces a serious dilemma: while it badly needs federal help to deal with the worsening urban crisis, it is also apprehensive of the increasing role of the federal government in the affairs of the city.

This predicament is reflected in the statements of the PPP leaders claiming that the provincial government is the major stakeholder in the efforts to transform Karachi. The ongoing stand-off between the provincial and federal ministers over their respective shares of resources in the project is part of political one-upmanship. What makes the Karachi situation more complex is the absence of an elected city administration that is fully responsible for providing basic civic amenities.

A large chunk of the financial package is allocated for cleaning the city, improving public transport and developing infrastructure. But for managing a city of over 20 million people, there is need for an empowered city government. It’s not clear when the local government elections would be held in the province. But whenever that happens, there is no likelihood of any one political party getting control of the city.

While the PTI has been able to sweep the general elections, the dynamics of the local government are completely different. Despite its overwhelming representation from the city in parliament, it does not seem to have the kind of grassroots-level organisation required for success in local-level elections. It was evident in the last local government polls when the party failed to make any significant inroads. Interestingly, despite its erosion, the MQM still has the grassroots base that could allow it to maintain a significant presence at least in local politics.

Notwithstanding the war of words between the two parties, the project is most likely to go ahead with the security establishment assuming the role of arbiter. It’s also not in the interest of any party that the plan to uplift the city be derailed because of infighting. Yet complete implementation on the transformation plan require the two sides to act more prudently by putting aside their vested interests. This is a rare opportunity to fix things in the country’s economic engine.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2020