NATIONAL

Election activity in Karachi dull

KARACHI OCT. 3. Sitting in this megalopolis — home to one-tenth of the people of Pakistan — it is impossible to believe that the country will witness a general election in exactly a week's time to elect representatives not just to the National but also to the four Provincial Assemblies.

Barring the odd flutter of a party flag, one has to really look hard for any evidence of election-related activity. In fact, there is only one point on which there is consensus among all those who have thrown their hat into the poll ring. The October 10 elections, if it takes place and without any hindrance, would go down as the dullest and quietest elections in the political history of the country.

It is strange but true that everyone in the electoral arena qualifies his/her views on the poll scene with a rider: will the elections be held? The question refuses to fade away despite innumerable "personal guarantees" by the Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, on the commitment of his regime to conduct the polls come what may.

What then accounts for the scepticism? A conviction that the managers of the Musharraf Government have not got their equations right about the future Parliament. And the belief that the results could upset the calculations of the General and pose a threat to his own future.

A central committee leader of the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), who does not want to be named, says: "we refuse to believe the projections in a section of the media that the Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), known as King's Party, is in a position to bag over 100 seats and poised to form the new government with the help of all and sundry".

He is convinced that the League, a splinter group of the Nawaz Sharif - led PML, would bag no more than a dozen seats. "There is no way the regime could prevent the party of Benazir Bhutto and Mr. Sharif from picking up a sizeable number of seats. Of course, the regime is going all out to the aid of the King's Party but the moot question is how many ballots can you stuff. You can increase ten votes to twenty and certainly not hundred in a booth".

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The MQM is a unique phenomenon in Pakistani politics and it is doubtful if there is any parallel to such a political movement anywhere in the world. A child of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies during the Zia-ul-Haq era in the mid-eighties, as a counter force to the PPP, it has travelled a long way. Having captured the imagination of the `mohajirs' (migrants from India) on the slogan of Punjabi domination, the MQM virtually rules over Karachi.

The methods employed by the MQM for its rise, with charges of indiscriminate violence and widespread network of extortion, are questionable but it is the number one political force in the port city and other towns in Sindh such as Hyderabad, dominated by the `mohajirs'.

The staying power of the MQM is all the more extraordinary as its supremo, Altaf Hussain, has been running the party from the suburbs of London. Mr. Hussain, who fled Karachi in 1992, has not returned to Pakistan. However, his grip over party leaders and cadres from several thousand km away is complete. Dissent in the party is stamped out with an iron hand.

Ironically, it is Mr. Hussain who has infused some life into the elections. Such is his "charisma" and "discipline" in the party that cadres flock from all the parts of the city to listen to their "messiah". Five days ago, he addressed a "historic" election rally, through the telephone, at the Nishtar Park. Party faithful claimed a record turnout of eight lakhs. It is an exaggerated figure but every one agrees it was the largest election rally anywhere in the country.

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When the establishment tried to reign in the MQM as its cadres ran berserk and got involved in deadly ethnic clashes, claiming hundreds of lives, the MQM (Haquiqi), a rebel faction led by some Sindhis in the MQM, was born. The Haquiqi group tried to whip up passions using the Sindhi card and their discrimination in the `mohajir'-dominated MQM. The faction has not made much headway though it has given headaches to the parent body from time to time.

Now, there are five "no go areas" in Karachi supposedly under the control of the Haquiqi men. The MQM accuses the military and intelligence agencies of extending protection to these areas. But the common man in Karachi makes no distinction between the two. "The MQM could be right. But would you allow a thief to enter your house?'' asked "boxer", a taxi-driver.

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India is an eternal topic of debate in the city dominated by those who fled that country either out of compulsion or driven by faith. The bittersweet memories of those who left behind everything in search of a new "motherland" linger on. Several are unable to get over the nightmare of Partition. And there are so many who still have their links in India. The snapping of rail, road and air links between India and Pakistan since January 1 has been a test of nerves to thousands here.

So, the queries of an Indian correspondent to a majority of Karachiites bounce back to their unforgettable past, uncomfortable present and uncertain future. As one strolls into the watering hole of journalists, the Karachi Press Club, late in the night, just one introduction is enough to tie you there for hours. Tales and more tales and it all boiled down to the anxious query: "Would there be a war between India and Pakistan? What does India want?"

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The United States is yet another topic for discussion. With the ongoing war on terror in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan and all the unwanted attention on Karachi as the new haven of militants, Karachiites are worried. Anti-American sentiments are running high and people nurse a grudge that the "over-reaction" of the Yankees was bringing a bad name to the city. What else can one expect when Americans announce that their Consulate in the city is functional from an "undisclosed" location while proclaiming Pakistan as the "stalwart ally" in its war on terror.

Not many share the assessment that Karachi has emerged as the new bastion of fundamentalists. It is attributed to the "panic reaction" of the U.S. and its allies to the two terror strikes — the attack on French engineers and the bomb attack outside the U.S. Consulate.

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Gen. Musharraf's "approval ratings" are fairly high among the common people if the random, though a very small, survey is any indication. As one citizen put it "akhir General hi to delliwala'' (after all, the General is from Delhi). That is `mohajir' solidarity.

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