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By-poll: a happy augury?

By-poll: a happy augury?

The MQM has romped home in the by-election in NA-246 which includes the party’s famed headquarter Nine Zero. That unprecedented and ironclad security measures were in place ensured the exercise was free and fair. Nobody was left with legitimate cause to question or challenge the outcome.

Following on from the high-profile raid on Nine Zero in the full glare of the media, the surfacing of a ‘videotaped confession’ of convicted MQM hitman Saulat Mirza as also the arrest of the ‘facilitator’ of the alleged assassins of dissident leader Dr Imran Farooq had somehow given cause to the party’s many opponents to rather prematurely write it off.

In a column that followed the raid on the party headquarters last month, I had argued: “Will the MQM be able to recover from the humiliation heaped on it? Is this the beginning of the end? Notwithstanding the fact that the party has sometimes been allegedly run as a criminal enterprise, with violence used to keep both dissidents and external opponents in check, its popular appeal paradoxically in urban Sindh is a reality.

Read: 90 raid aftermath: MQM at crossroads

“This isn’t, of course, to say that it can and will sustain the sort of success it has enjoyed at the ballot box in the past but any suggestions that it’ll soon be consigned to history will be a gross exaggeration of its travails.”

This wasn’t a unique, one-person minority opinion. Many commentators familiar with Karachi and the dynamics of its politics expressed similar views. Equally, there were those whose line of argument, routinely, is no weightier than: aap ko kuchh nahin pata (you don’t know anything).

The most positive element to emerge from this electoral exercise wasn’t who was right, who wasn’t. Its significance lies perhaps in the fact that the MQM will realise it enjoys support enough in not only NA-246 but in a number of urban Sindh constituencies to win an election without resorting to force and strong-arm methods.

While open to being corrected, I have believed that the current round of clampdown against the party is not meant to destroy it. Its primary purpose seems to be to defang it; take out its militant wing and leave the others alone.

Although out of fear or loyalty no party leader will go on record to say as much, a number of incidents and some off-the-record conversations with insiders suggest there was disquiet among some of the party leaders and legislators elected on its ticket at how much sway the militants held over decisions to the exclusion of others.

Also read: NA-246: Official results announced, MQM regains seat by huge margin

The MQM is, has been, and will remain an important player in urban Sindh. Its support base in Karachi, even with a few islands carved out of it by PTI and others, will remain phenomenal but one hopes it can reconcile to a few facts.

Karachi is a multi-ethnic city. The MQM is its major player but other ethnic, political entities also enjoy allegiances among the electorate. Service, work and delivery is the way to win over these voters. Use of force to influence electors or alter the course of elections is wrong and can only bring infamy and disaster to any party’s support base.

While it rightly feels it has often been targeted by the state, it also needs to reflect why. The MQM is equally to blame. The perception that it has danced to the so-called establishment’s tune at the drop of a hat is also well-founded. When it has had that sort of backing, it has shown its opponents no greater mercy.

A party with a big support base need only concern itself with electoral politics. It needs to get out of its Aligarh Colony massacre mode. That was then, this is now. Its leadership would do well to count the dead from among its own ranks over all the years violence was considered a legitimate tool.

There will be only one conclusion. Much more than harm any opponent, its strong-arm tactics have brought loss and grieving to thousands of its supporters, many of whom were encouraged to live by the sword and ended up dying by it too.

Of course it would be concerned that if it ‘allows’ other political entities to function freely, and win some seats, its numerical representation in the assemblies will decline and it’ll be unable to have the kind of say it had, for example, during the last PPP government or the one comprising Musharraf loyalists before that.

But so what? What lasting gain did such a pre-eminent position bring? Development in Karachi, during the tenure of mayor Mustafa Kamal, now seems like such a distant happening. You need only drive through Karachi for a few hours to see how the city of lights is now no more than a picture of neglect.

Going forward the state of the MQM’s health will be determined in large measure by how much it fears change. It can keep up with the ways of its past to probably not too dissimilar results or get over its past and move confidently forward in a democratic fashion.

To my mind, the by-election result was also reminder to the army-led Rangers and intelligence agencies in particular and the administration, including the police, in general. Their job is to focus on enforcing the law without fear or favour. That is indiscriminately.

Inasmuch as pressurising the criminals to run or to flush them out is concerned, psychological warfare can have legitimacy. But when the effort takes on the hue of an exercise to demonise a political entity with mass support, rest assured it will backfire.

That the PTI and Jamaat-i-Islami were able to campaign freely in the constituency and that the whole by-election was conducted in a manner where nobody justifiably questioned its outcome are all positive pointers. Let’s see if the unfortunate mess the city has come to represent can consolidate on this gain.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

[email protected]

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2015

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