The art of the possible – Zarrar Khuhro


Following is a cross blog post from Express tribune.  Zarra Khuro, the writer,  is senior staffer at The Express Tribune [email protected]

A fortress built of fear is a deceptively fragile construct. From the outside it seems imposing and impregnable, but once you chip away at the outer layer of stone, it’s all glass from the inside. Once broken, it’s not easily repaired. One such breach was recently witnessed in Karachi, when protestors openly shouted in the streets what many had previously not dared to utter in their own homes.

It was not so much a protest against rigging, but also the bursting of a deep reservoir of rage; one that had been building for years on end. It was inevitable and we should be thankful that, for the most part, it has remained peaceful.

On that point, one must note that while rigging did not take place on a scale large enough to alter the national outcome, it did take place. Asking people, many of whom voted for the first time, to simply ignore that because ‘it happens’ is not good enough. It is, in some ways, the equivalent of the “if rape is inevitable … ” argument. Both are equally disgusting. But in Karachi, at least, rigging was just a trigger to an old anger that found a new outlet.

What was also new is that the threats, later ‘clarified’, hurled at the protestors were confronted not with fear, but with more outrage and what is no doubt a very novel and very lateral method of protest, as the London police can no doubt testify.

In the aftermath of that speech, which caused a degree of consternation in its own camp as well, we saw leaders trying to portray it as being misunderstood and misinterpreted. Watching that display was a stark reminder of why Karachi, despite its massive population, has been unable to produce any serious spin bowling talent.

As for where that speech came from, it’s an observation that expats, by and large, tend to remain stuck in the year of their emigration. Those who left during the Bhutto years will still talk of socialism, those who left during Zia’s era will forever harp on about Islamisation and repression. Thus, those who left Karachi in 1992 will, well am sure you get the picture.

Others are out of touch as well. Most of our usual outrage brigade was also missing in action. You know them, they’re the ones who insist you condemn every outrage from 2000BC onwards, and take you to task if you don’t. During this whole episode, they were silent spectators. Still others mocked the protestors as ‘burgers’, which would be funny if it didn’t come from the same people who routinely decried the ‘elite’ classes for being apoliticial and disinterested in the rough and tumble of street politics. Still others called it a ‘class war’, proving that it’s not just ex-pats who are hopelessly stuck in the past. What this ignored, of course, is that the PTI’s support didn’t just come from one area, as a glance at the Karachi polling results will show.

That this is a challenge of a different nature is beyond doubt. What it means for the future of Karachi is another matter. One hopes that Karachi’s largest party sees that the usual tactics don’t always work, and that there is now a deep and growing resentment that can and will burst forth. The true tragedy here is that if they truly broke with their own past, there would be a real opportunity to move beyond the narrow urban base they are confined to. But every time that’s about to happen, there’s a May 12th, whether its 2007 or 2013. Someone needs to consult a numerologist to figure out the significance of that date. What has also come to light are what are clear cracks in what outwardly appeared to be a monolith, and this was apparent in the aftermath of Zahra Hussain’s killing.

On that note, Imran Khan’s laying of blame at the MQM’s doorstep was premature, regardless of what some may see as circumstantial evidence. In the tinderbox that is Karachi, such statements can be dangerous. Of course, the handling of this by the MQM removed whatever advantage had been handed to them. The smart move would have been to declare a day of mourning and then fill the streets of Azizabad with the MQM cadres praying for her soul. The reaction we saw, however, was also born of fear; a fear of losing what had been an iron grip. That this grip has been shaken is clear. Results show that Arif Alvi would have won regardless of re-polling, which shows exactly in whose interest it was that the May 11 polling be disrupted. That people voted for the PTI in what are considered the MQM’s strongholds set off alarm bells. The response, from a party unused to such challenges, was thus panicked and mismanaged. And now, heads are rolling, though luckily only in a symbolic way.

For the PTI, it’s important not to overplay their newly dealt hand. Passion and protests only go so far, and there comes a time for practical politics. To move forward, they need to consolidate the gains they have made and push for true electoral reform, along with electronic voting and more. With a voice in parliament, the best way to protest Zahra Hussain’s murder is to push for the kind of police and judicial reform no one has been willing to tackle thus far. Let them propose it, and let the people see who opposes it.

For its part, the MQM needs to realise that while it has a huge mandate in Karachi, it also has huge responsibilities, foremost of which is maintaining a peace that had been sorely lacking. It is inevitable that those who ‘own’ Karachi will be held responsible for it. This is not a conspiracy or victimisation, but simple reality.  In this new scenario, with a new political force to contend with and a federal leadership whose main priority is the economy, those who use only the tactics of the past will have a bleak future.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 25th, 2013.