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Fear and loathing in Karachi

April 16, 2013

Photo shows former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto moments before she was assassinated at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh.—File Photo

Minutes before sunset on Dec 27, 2007, television channels started airing news of the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in Rawalpindi.

And minutes after, Pakistan’s democratic and political future plunged into darkness: what about the elections scheduled for Jan 8? The end of a dictator’s rule? The integrity of Pakistan?

The answers started coming in slowly over the days that followed. Elections were delayed to Feb 18, retired Gen Pervez Musharraf emerged more powerful and Asif Ali Zardari, after taking over party affairs, insisted “Pakistan khappay (required)”, brushing aside fears of disintegration.

But the blood and violence that was sparked off in Sindh in particular remained a mystery. Was it a spontaneous reaction to the killing of the Pakistan’s twice-elected prime minister or a planned move to postpone the elections? Five years on, we remain unaware.

After coming into power, the PPP did set up a commission tasked to investigate the magnitude of the losses due to that bout of violence, discover the motives and trace the people responsible, but it failed to expose any of the facts. The commission was dissolved in less than a week without an explanation.

The financial capital of the country suffered most. Karachi descended into anarchy with fear ruling the city for almost a week; more than 30 people were killed in random violent episodes and hundreds of vehicles as well as business facilities were set ablaze. The level of brutality can be gauged by the fact that nearly half a dozen of people who died were labourers burnt to death inside an industrial unit in the Korangi area when it was set on fire by an ‘angry mob’.

Political parties’ election campaigns that had come to a halt amid the violence later gathered momentum again. But the challenges were far from over.

The city and the country went to the polls on Feb 18 with major contesting parties expressing misgivings about fair elections and a question mark over the voters’ list; the polling cards Karachiites got from different political parties revealed astonishing mistakes.

Polling day came to an end largely peacefully, with a 44 per cent voter turnout. The two main opposition parties, the PPP and the PML-N, won the majority of the seats and in Karachi the MQM retained all its seats as well as won constituencies where it had lost in the 2002 elections. The PPP was seen forming a government, but in coalition with other parties. A number of PPP candidates alleged massive rigging on certain Karachi seats, which dimmed the prospects of it allying with the MQM.

Along with a colleague and the correspondent of a foreign radio service, I witnessed the furious reaction of a senior PPP Karachi leader on the evening of Feb 18, when he was sure of having lost to his rival candidate on a National Assembly seat in district east. After recording a nearly five-minute sound bite regarding his reaction to the overall polling process in Karachi, the radio correspondent requested him to be “soft” as the words he was using could not be aired. The PPP leader, who later became a senator, refused, saying that the reality of polling day had been much harsher.

Yet the coming days witnessed a fade-out of the divisions between the PPP and MQM, and the two became strong ruling partners in both the centre and in Sindh. The relationship lasted almost five years, though with more lows than highs. The comments made by the PPP leader that Feb 18 evening still echo in my ears.

“After so much has happened today, if we still compromise only for the sake of power, then it would be the last five years,” he had said. “The PPP is an ideology and it will not sacrifice its half-a-century-old history over five years of government. After five years, we would not be able to face our own people.”