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Zero-sum politics

July 16, 2011

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KARACHI, a city that is known both for its unending expansion and opportunities and recurrent deaths and desolation, has, in recent days, once again fallen victim to the narrow political interests of its 'masters' and 'claimants' who refuse to recognise the complexity of the city's nature.

The latter demands a dispassionate analysis of the interplay between the 'biological laws' that limit its accommodative and civic capacities and the 'legitimate expectations' of the city's denizens.

Indeed, Karachi's pathos and glory rest on three constants: its port, demography and development. Its port has been both a boon and a bane. The port gave the city its unique internationalist, multicultural and liberal character, in addition to making it the conduit of goods and services and a major source of revenue generation. But it also facilitated foreign marauders and colonialists. Without it, British expansion in this part of the world would have been far more difficult. Similarly, its demography has also brought it both boom and doom.

Roughly, there have been three major waves of migration into the city. The first wave started with the partition when Mohajirs settled in their thousands in the city, drastically changing its socio-cultural and political complexion. This also led to friction between the 'locals' and 'non-locals'. The second wave of migration came from the north, comprising mainly Pakhtun labour, prompted by the economic opportunity that the city's fast burgeoning social, economic and physical infrastructures offered — and that also led to ethnic riots.

The third and ongoing migration to the city began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that forced millions of Afghans to take refuge in neighbouring Pakistan. Many of them came to Karachi. The post 9/11 war on terror turned the trickle into a steady stream, bringing thousands of war-displaced Pakhtuns from the north. Also, a sizeable number of people belonging to southern Punjab and interior Sindh flocked to Karachi, forced by dwindling economic opportunities, worsening law and order, emerging neo-feudalism and neo-tribalism, and the slow but steady breakdown of the joint family system in agricultural communities that caused peasant redundancy.

Historically, development has led to both stability and instability, depending upon who is and who is not the beneficiary. China is a case in point where despite the double-digit economic growth the rural-urban divide remains a great source of instability, causing hundreds of riots every year. The boom-and-bust cycle has also affected Karachi's social harmony and ethnic relations. Particularly during the last decade, Karachi saw an economic boom borne on a consumer-driven economy, large federal funding and infrastructural development on a wide scale undertaken by successive city governments and requiring considerable numbers of skilled and unskilled labour.

Even when the country's economy slowed down and developmental works in the city were truncated or brought to a halt, economic migrants continued to stream into Karachi from upcountry, and political and ethnic relations began to come under strain. Tragically, instead of containing the resulting sociological, demographic and political fallouts that imperilled inter-ethnic relations, Sindh's coalition partners stuck to their rigid constituency politics. Even as the coalition of the PPP, MQM and ANP held sway, the city repeatedly fell into ethnic 'turf wars', causing untold misery, death and destruction. Scant thought was given to the fact that the use of force was counterproductive in a city whose fabric was now stitched in a multiethnic thread and that partisan and violent politics would only disrupt city life. Party positions were solidified and the city was allowed to become hostage to target killers and those creating mayhem.

Unfortunately, with the recent passage of the bills restoring the pre-Musharraf administrative, revenue and police laws and the subsequent diatribe of some PPP stalwarts against the MQM and the latter's challenging the government, the debate on 'ownership' of the city has taken a violent turn. Though there are a host of 'stakeholders' in the city's political and socio-economic spaces, including the Sunni Tehrik, the MQM-H, Jamaat-i-Islami, Sindhi nationalists, the Aman Committee, and drug and crime mafias, a turf war is going on between the main contenders: the MQM, PPP and ANP. mohajireen

The MQM stakes its 'rightful' ownership claim to its electoral majority, the urban representation to the national and provincial legislatures, and until recently, 'de jure' control over the city government. On the other hand, the PPP considers Karachi as the provincial capital, and hence, under its administrative domain. It also believes, like its newfound ally the PML-Q, that the city belongs not just to 'Sindhis' and 'Mohajirs' but to all communities. But it's the ANP that has seriously challenged the MQM's 'ownership' and street power, though it won only two out of 168 provincial seats.The MQM attributes the ANP's phenomenal rise to the decade-long influx of the war-displaced Pakhtuns, including 'trained terrorists', and wants to check the influx. But the fact remains that demographic politics is not new to Karachi. For instance, the local Islamists didn't oppose the influx of the Afghan ''; the MQM welcomed the 'Biharis' in Karachi ignoring the Sindhi-speaking people's fear of being turned into a minority; and now the PPP is silent on the continuous inflow from other provinces, assuming that it would dilute the MQM's vote in Karachi, but ignoring the concerns of its Sindhi-speaking constituency.

As a result, Karachi is caught in a nasty zero-sum politics that is rooted in the lack of regulation of its three constants — the port, demography and development. The state's dwindling writ and myopic partisan politics have turned these constants into a set of self-serving tools to control the city and its resources. No wonder Karachi seems to have been compartmentalised into ethnic Bantustans run by various groups.

But this artificial segregation denies the city's seamless, multiethnic and interdependent labour, industrial, financial, capital and consumer markets. Therefore, the city requires powerful democratic and municipal institutions to facilitate transactions, regulate industrial relations, resolve commercial disputes and channel culture away from violent politics. At least, that is the way forward shown by other multi-cultural megapolises like Bombay, New York, Rio, London and Singapore.

The writer is a lawyer.

shahabusto@hotmail.com