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ON Jan 22, in the small town of Bhitshah in Matiari district, where Sufi poet and Sindhi colossus, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, is buried, a closely watched political rally was held. Organised by Ali Kazi, a Hyderabad-based media magnate, the rally was the capstone of a month-long effort to launch a new political party in Sindh.

“Ninety-five per cent of Sindh’s problems are linked to bad governance. The law and order situation, the lack of infrastructure, the lack of progress, it all flows from a tyrannical mindset,” said Kazi in an interview a couple of months after the Bhitshah rally.

“We wanted people to realise the power of their vote. It’s a perception, a myth really, that the waderas can’t be defeated. So in 32 days, we held 187 public gatherings from Karachi to Kashmore, talking about change,” according to Kazi.

By all accounts, the rally was a failure. A few thousand people turned up where several hundred thousand had been hoped for. The movement to create a third option for interior Sindh — to take on the PPP and a powerful cohort of independent waderas, sardars and pirs — had fizzled out before it could take off.

According to Wusatullah Khan, a BBC journalist who has travelled extensively through Sindh, Kazi did not understand the mechanics of politics in the province. “Ali Kazi was a businessman until last year, he has no history in politics and his is an urban thought,” Khan said.

“The rules of rural society are very different. You need a network of local influentials who gather votes and local people have to trust your guy,” Khan added. Outwardly, Kazi is unmoved by the Bhitshah debacle. “Maybe I do understand the model of traditional politics but maybe that’s precisely what I don’t want to follow,” he said.

But Kazi has returned to his business roots managing his Sindhi-language media empire and has no immediate political plans. Another prominent face of the Kazi-led movement, Marvi Memon, has since joined the PML-N.

Sindhi nationalists

On the fringes of Sindh politics for the past four decades, a motley group of politicians known as the nationalists have noisily claimed to be the only authentic representatives of Sindh and of Sindhis. With a vague agenda – most have drifted from the demand for a separate country towards more autonomy for the provinces – and a minimal electoral footprint – partly because of ambivalence towards parliamentary politics – much of that claim has rested on turnouts at nationalist rallies.

In recent years, the size of the crowds at nationalist rallies has grown. On March 23, for example, Bashir Qureshi, leader of the Jeay Sindhi Qaumi Mahaz, which rejects electoral politics, held a large rally in Karachi in which he declared the time had come for Sindh to declare its independence. Two days earlier, Qadir Magsi, leader of the Sindh Taraqi Pasand Party, which does not seek a separate state, gathered thousands of supporters to celebrate Sindh Motherland Day in Hyderabad.

“Ten years ago all the nationalists combined couldn’t have brought 10,000 people to a jalsa, now they could get substantially more,” according to Ali Hassan Chandio, the president of the fledgling Sindh National Movement. Still, few are convinced that the electoral impact of the nationalists will grow, even as many of the major parties begin to throw their hats into the electoral ring.

“Zero plus zero equals zero,” said an analyst who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his personal relations with nationalist leaders. “They’ve got nothing, not even the people who turn up at their rallies vote for them.”

A PPP leader from the south of the province was also dismissive, “They aren’t a problem electorally. Qadir Magsi may have a few votes but it’s not really a problem to adjust them.” However, Ali Hassan Chandio believes that at least the long-term electoral prospects for the nationalists are improving: “There are possibilities, in Jamshoro, in Badin, in Thatta, in Tando Mohammad Khan, in Tando Allahyar Khan.

It all depends on whether they can change mindsets and gain the trust of the people.”

A sceptical electorate

Converting support into votes remains a big hurdle for the nationalists, not least because of their approach to politics and personal reputations. According to Zafar Junejo, a social activist based in Dadu, “To win an election, you need to be among the people, to work on their behalf, to share in their grief at funerals and happiness at weddings. The nationalists do none of that.” Junejo added that many of the nationalist leaders were viewed with mistrust by the electorate and have a reputation for corruption and other criminal activities. Unity is also a problem. “The three big players, Ayaz Palejo’s Awami Tehrik, Qadir Magsi’s Sindh Taraqi Pasand and Jalal Mehmood Shah’s Sindh United Party, if they developed a common manifesto and fielded joint candidates then something would be possible. But the differences between them are acute,” Ali Hassan Chandio said. Chandio said that the floods and rains over the last couple of years were an opportunity for the nationalists to show their concern for voters, “but they did nothing”. He added: “Even now, they aren’t getting ID cards made, developing grassroots networks or doing the kind of work that wins elections.”

Aloof from the electorate and fractious, the nationalists are also marginalised by the presence of the PPP. Jami Chandio, a writer and activist, suggested that because a Sindh-based option that can project power nationally already exists, nationalist options are less appealing.

“In the colleges and universities, students like the emotional appeal of nationalism. But outside, most can see they have no hope of coming to power so it’s a waste,” Chandio said.

The also-rans

With no third option on the horizon in Sindh, the PML-N is busy co-opting existing candidates outside the PPP fold. “PML-N understands the need to gather older and new political forces of Sindh under one umbrella, including nationalists who have chosen to stay out electoral politics in the past,” according to Marvi Memon, who joined the N-League after the failed attempt with Ali Kazi. The strategy is to bring into the PML-N fold figures like Liaquat Jatoi, a powerful candidate from Dadu who is sure to give the incumbent PPP MNA a tough time.

Mumtaz Bhutto, who is loosely clubbed together with the nationalists, is also believed to be another target.

“By himself Mumtaz Bhutto doesn’t stand a chance. But if he allies with Nawaz and people think the PPP isn’t coming back to power, then people may think of him as a future chief minister and he could pull a Sindh Assembly seat,” according to a politician familiar with the area. “But it’s still Larkana, it won’t be easy.”

Meanwhile, the PTI, even after the inclusion of Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who has a number of spiritual followers in Sindh, is not expected to be a factor. A politician from upper Sindh who is considering joining the PTI explained, “I like what Imran Khan stands for. But winning here has nothing to do with the party; it’s all about independent vote banks. Shah Mehmood Qureshi has some support in Ghotki, in Mithi, in Mirpurkhas, but he’s no game-changer.” So in Sindh at least, the status quo looks set to prevail.

Wusatullah Khan, the BBC journalist, explained the choice thus, “I’m a voter on the way to the polling station, thinking about who to vote for. I can’t vote for nationalists because they won’t win and that’s a wasted vote. I can’t vote for N-League; how many offices do they have in Sindh? PTI? It has no presence. MQM? No. It comes down to PPP and independents.”