By Emad Masroor
Dear Mustafa Kamal,
I am going to preface this letter by saying that I admire you for the way you embraced ownership of the city of Karachi, and encouraged all of her citizens to do the same. Your tenure as mayor was indeed a time of hope and of promise for a city which has never seen much of either – and I say this not because of the number of infrastructure projects executed by the former City District Government Karachi, but because the ten years of local government seen by Karachi was an exemplary model of government of the people, for the people, by the people.
You advocate for a presidential form of government with devolution of many functions to the local level. Ostensibly modeled after the U.S., this form of government is appealing for many reasons – it separates the executive from the legislature, it allows the president to appoint talented, qualified – as opposed to elected – individuals for cabinet roles, and it brings stability to the executive office. In such a system, powers – and money – would be channeled to districts and union councils rather than being concentrated at the top of the political system, allowing people to have more ownership of the state and its resources.
However, I contend that you’ve mixed two very different issues: the question of parliamentary versus presidential democracy has been conflated with the question of devolution of powers. The first of these questions was definitively settled by unanimous vote in 1973, when we collectively reached a consensus about what form of government the people of Pakistan want, and we decided on parliamentary democracy. I do not want to get embroiled in the debate about which one is “better”: what matters is that our country reached a consensus on this first question in 1973, which was renewed in 2010 with the passage of the 18th amendment. If your demand truly is that Pakistan switch to a presidential form of government, then by all means fight for it – on the ballot.
On the second question, that of the devolution of powers, I completely agree with you. I believe that democracy fails to achieve its purpose when powers remain concentrated at the federal and provincial levels; truly representative government should devolve local powers to local institutions – police, health, education, and civic works – so that people can have more genuine control over the government. The first steps on this path have already been taken by devolving many powers to the provinces: now Pakistan should create new provinces on administrative lines and further devolve powers to the local level. This will not only strengthen democracy in the country, but will also leave time for the federal government to focus its energies on national-level issues.
Regrettably, Pakistan – in particular, Karachi – saw its most transparent local government system under the reign of a military dictator. The City District Government Karachi would not have been possible without the intervention of President Musharraf, and so President Musharraf was indirectly responsible for the spectacular strengthening of municipal institutions which occurred from 2001 – 2010. The overthrow of President Musharraf and the consequent return of parliamentary democracy has resulted, at least in Sindh, in the slow erosion of those institutions, which have seen their powers sapped one by one by the provincial government.
I am unequivocally against this blatant anti-democratic usurping of power by the provincial government of Sindh. Every single citizen of Karachi is witness to the deterioration of the city under the new ‘commissioner-raj’ style of government: you only have to live in the city for a few days to see it. But – painful as it is – this does not mean that we clamour for the return of Musharraf or demand that because Karachi is being wronged, the whole country should return to a presidential form of government. Devolution must come, but if it is imposed by a military government it will not last, just like the CDGK couldn’t. Devolution of powers from the provincial to the local level must come organically, as a demand of the people of Sindh, through the democratic process – any other attempt will fail.
Most of your conference was, predictably, about the MQM. I have no affiliation with the party, whereas you were a senior member for decades, so I am inclined to believe everything you have said about it. I simply want to remind you that the powers-that-be in Pakistan have never really accepted the reality of an organized political party representing the people of Karachi. It is routinely alleged that the MQM wins the vote of the most-educated city of Pakistan through deception, or blackmail, or brainwashing, or violence – and that by implication, the MQM is not a legitimate political actor. Your words have – knowingly or unknowingly – fed into that narrative and have made a laughing stock of the people of Karachi, who you imply vote for a drunk power-hungry maniac year after year. Your tirade did not add anything new to this discourse, but thanks to your “explosive” press conference, the PTI’s of our country now have their boogeyman, their ‘stance is vindicated’, and Karachi’s largest party is “terrorist”. In exchange, we – the people of Karachi – got a fiery speech and ‘a new, as yet unnamed political party’.
The bottom line is that your tirade about the MQM – despite its candor, despite the sick nature of the party – does little to change the ground realities for the people of Karachi. Votes are not won through melodramatic outbursts, but through sustained commitment to the welfare of the electorate. Much of what you said struck a chord with me – and with many other Karachiites, I am sure – because many of my suspicions about your former party were being confirmed on live TV. But when all is said and done, and the dust has settled on your press conferences, the political realities of Karachi – and the options available to those who do not believe in an “ethnic” vote bank – will remain the same. One, a party which feels entitled to my vote without demonstrating any understanding of the city’s needs; one, a religious party teetering closer and closer to the edge of fundamentalism; one, a faux socialist group of opportunists hell-bent on sucking the city dry.
Sir, I do not doubt your sincerity and your commitment to the city, but the people of Karachi are not interested in theatrics. We are not interested in the formation of a judicial committee to probe your allegations, because these allegations are, in some sense, irrelevant. Besides, everyone already knows almost everything that you ‘revealed’. The fact is that people of this city vote in their interest, and – sadly, I think – the MQM is the only political party which at least pretends to stand for those interests. Change will not be engineered off the back of army trucks or overnight after a flight from Dubai. If you are serious about developing a less violent and more humane alternative to the MQM, then this will take some work, and it will not be easy. The people of Karachi vote on issues, so I look forward to seeing you and your ‘unnamed political party’ develop a stance on the issues that win votes – surely you know what those are. If you truly mean what you have been saying, then you will have to work within the democratic process, which means grassroots political work and many years of self-sacrifice.
Let’s see if you deliver.