NA 246 - Excellent Reporting

  • Rarely has a by-election attracted so much attention from the public and media as have the coming polls in Karachi’s NA-246.It’s not just a battle for turf or a national assembly seat, it’s a contest between the entrenched and the emerging

    It’s past 4pm and Azizabad is just waking up to the news that Imran Khan has left the neighbourhood, and that too without having stayed for lunch. A television screen blares the “breaking news” in many shops of Azizabad Main Road.

    There has been a scuffle at Jinnah Ground between Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) activists, the anchors tell us. That is of little concern to many; Khan not staying for lunch is a greater affront.

    “We extended our hospitality and this is how they respond,” tut-tuts Akbar Ali*, a tailor in his late 50s who swears he has nothing to do with the MQM proper but who has been a loyal follower of the party ever since its inception. “If Altaf Bhai hadn’t allowed it, he wouldn’t have been able to cross Karimabad. Nobody would have let him.”

    There is matter-of-factness in Akbar Ali’s tone.

    “Why?” I asked, “Who would have hurt him? The party?”

    “Ordinary people, you and I. We would need only two things: rocks and rotten eggs, to throw at his car. He [Imran Khan] would have fled the area like a bat out of hell, straight to the airport.”

    Akbar Ali is one of the many tailors on Azizabad Main Road, perhaps the largest commercial area of the locality. The street doubles as a residential area too; there are housing units constructed either as annexes or as storeys in a building. On both its sides, the main road connects a labyrinth of lanes and by-lanes. The entire area is decorated with street-wide MQM flags, kites and banners; if you didn’t know the candidate’s name before, you wouldn’t forget it now.

    This is a quintessential lower middle-class market, the core demographic of the MQM.

    As the MQM found power, explains Ali, the number of established shops on Azizabad Main Road also grew. He points to the sheer number of small businesses today that have burgeoned in the area over the years as proof of how the MQM has benefitted its core constituents. From a tailor’s shop to plumber’s, from a stationery shop to a sofa repairs one, from a barber to auto repairs, there are numerous artisans of many crafts on Azizabad Main Road. No one is large enough to establish a monopoly, but nobody is out of business either.

    Down the lane, the shutters have just risen in a shop but the men inside are already keeping an eye on the minute details being aired on electronic media. This is an MQM election office, where workers have only just arrived.

    Why the delay in starting work? I ask.

    “Because of Markaz (MQM central headquarters); let me show you the number of SMSes sent to us since last night, barring us from leaving our homes till Imran Khan left,” says Mohammad Younas*, the in-charge of the office. He leans over with proof; a number of text messages with the same order: “keep yourself and other saathis (comrades) inside your homes, else strict disciplinary action will be taken.”

    Behind Younas is a blackboard informing visitors of the MQM sector whose office this is, the number of “charges” of the office, circles and blocks. There are over 18,000 voters that this election office was tasked with covering.

    The commotion caused by overzealous activists and a heavy police contingent led Imran Khan into minor traffic accidents during his brief trip to Karachi

    The commotion caused by overzealous activists and a heavy police contingent led Imran Khan into minor traffic accidents during his brief trip to Karachi

    When asked why there are so few banners and flags in the election office, Younas says it is because they have already put up most sent by the Markaz. “When we need more, we’ll ask the Markaz again,” he says. “Everything is being monitored and accounted for by the Markaz; even the receipt for lunch and tea will be sent to them.”

    As we engage in chit-chat, young men start trickling in to mark their attendance. Then arrive two middle-aged men, whom everyone stood up and greeted. Younas nudges me to stand too; this was a matter of respect.

    As I learn later, one of the seniors, Hussain Bhai*, is part of the MQM’s Central Election Cell, a body comprising ideological veterans, and which plans and executes much of MQM’s electioneering campaign. Hussain Bhai’s job is to make sure all is well, to provide guidance and counsel where required, and sometimes, to coordinate with the Markaz to schedule and send public representatives and senior leaders to corner meetings and door-to-door meetings.

    “BREAKING NEWS: Jinnah Ground is too small for our public meeting, says Imran Khan,” booms the idiot box. Some laugh, others are offended, but Hussain Bhai tells the others that good decisions must be lauded. “It’s sensible of them to shift venues, there is no need to provoke any conflict,” he says. The others nod; there is wisdom in what Hussain Bhai says.

    MQM and PTI activists face off at Jinnah Ground

    MQM and PTI activists face off at Jinnah Ground

    The discussion soon shifts to the “media” and its reportage of electioneering in the constituency. Most accuse the media of bias, of making mountains out of molehills when it comes to the MQM.

    “Even newspaper coverage?” I ask.

    “Channel wallay,” is the consensus. “They are being unfair to us.”


    “When the Markaz is sending out orders to all sectors and units to stay home, do you think any MQM activist will disobey them and attack Imran Khan’s contingent? Nobody is asking for our version, they are just saying it is the MQM. It could be ordinary people too, I am sure it is ordinary people,” says Hussain Bhai. “Imran Khan says he is coming to liberate Karachi. He has no confidence in Karachiites, he is accusing us of things we didn’t do; how can he get freedom for anyone?

    It is soon time to leave, since duties and responsibilities of the day have already been assigned. “Today is the last day we are meeting men; from tomorrow, we’ll start the bajis’ door-to-door meetings,” Hussain Bhai tells his junior comrades. “Make it count.”

    I ask permission to shadow them in corner meetings and door-to-door meetings, but Hussain Bhai tells me that those gatherings would start around 8.30pm. “I’ll tell you what; swing by this office around 9.30pm and see for yourself. There’ll be a mela here.”

    In main Karimabad, where Shahrah-i-Humayun meets Shahrah-i-Pakistan, adjacent to Liaquatabad Flyover and on the corner of the main road, is the multi-storeyed Sohni Shopping Centre.

    A gigantic PTI flag drapes one of the plaza’s facades; Imran Khan is there, too, on the billboards, as is party candidate Imran Ismail. Owned by party leader Firdous Shamim, as party activists inform me, Sohni Shopping Centre is PTI turf in NA-246.

    With the plaza serving as the PTI’s election headquarters, three shops on the ground floor adorn the colours and flags of the PTI. A music and sound system has been installed too. Upstairs, there are empty halls used for storage purposes: a number of party flags as well as sets of cricket balls and bats made out of plastic.

    Gainful employment: A printer in Azam Square makes decent money preparing flags for various parties

    Gainful employment: A printer in Azam Square makes decent money preparing flags for various parties

    Official office timings are from 11am to 11pm, but campaigning continues well past midnight. “People who want to stay in the background, basically families, come to us after 10pm. They feel secure that way,” explain PTI activists.

    On the pavement outside, a large camp has been erected for the party’s candidate to greet and meet people, and to address the media. A truck installed with a music and sound system is there too, blaring PTI songs from time to time. A police contingent is already there, as are the early birds of PTV News. The candidate usually arrives between 5pm and 5.30pm, young PTI activists inform me; there was at least another hour to go.

    Inside Sohni Shopping Centre, I meet a group of young PTI activists. Two of them are college-going students but aren’t from the local PTI chapter; they have arrived from Gulshan-i-Iqbal.

    “I come from an Urdu-speaking, Deobandi family,” says Jamal Siddiqi*, studying at a private college in Karachi. “My father has always voted for the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), and he wanted to keep me away from linguistic politics and the politics of violence.”

    Sitting next to Siddiqi is Anas Abbas*, another Urdu-speaking college-going student. Both describe their aims of changing Karachi through “ending this classist system of education and health, and rooting out corruption.” There is also a mention of the PPP being culpable in the province’s underdevelopment.

    But Abbas has a personal grouse with the MQM.

    “Imran Ismail was on door-to-door campaigning, and he was riding my motorbike. The next night, I wasn’t home but some people called my house, read out my bike’s number plate, and asked if it was indeed my motorbike being used by Imran Saheb,”alleges Abbas. “They said they were standing outside my house, and wanted to meet. We all know what they mean by that.”

    “This is exactly what we struggle against,” chimes in Siddiqi. “Tell me, will anybody from a shareef khandaan ever step inside a sector office to have their problems solved? How did they get so much authority to replace the police?”

    A little while later, in walks Alamgir Mehsud, the central joint secretary of the PTI. Siddiqi and Abbas explain that Mehsud is responsible for executing the election campaign.

    “In terms of ideologies, you are up against Mohajir nationalism and Islamism / political Islam. Do you think that a rebooted version of Pakistaniat can compete for the romance and pull of those two ideologies?” I ask Mehsud.

    JI chief Sirajul Haq presents his party’s manifesto at a public gathering

    JI chief Sirajul Haq presents his party’s manifesto at a public gathering

    “Most people associated with the campaign are Urdu-speaking; Imran Ismail, Arif Alvi, Asad Umer, Firdous Shamim ... we want people to know that there is an alternative Urdu-speaking leadership. Rebooting Pakistaniat is about rising above nationalism and sectarianism,” argues Mehsud.

    Before we could get into specifics, Mehsud is pestered on the phone by another senior leader. Outside, Imran Ismail has arrived and things are picking up. Mehsud begs his leave.

    By now, the number of police mobiles present has increased from three to four, while the number of electronic media vans has now risen to nine. All reporters chase sound-bites from any of the numerous PTI leaders present. Together with supporters, bystanders and media personnel, there is sudden excitement around the little patch of pavement.

    Those who arrive to meet the candidate are not disappointed; some take selfies, others ask to have their pictures taken. A fair few bystanders maintain their distance; the police, it seems, are deterrent enough for ordinary people to come forward and meet the candidate.

    Another police mobile soon arrives on the scene. A senior official overseeing security arrangements sends one of the mobiles to set up a picket on the Liaquatabad Flyover and monitor the camp from above. Those perched on the truck start playing music, almost to inform the area that their candidate has arrived.

    In a few minutes, the camp set up on a roadside and overwhelming media presence starts creating traffic gridlocks. Amidst the commotion, policemen tell me that MQM activists are patrolling the area on their motorbikes. “Are you certain they are MQM activists?” I ask. “It’s a hunch,” comes the curt reply.

    Across the Liaquatabad Flyover, the evening rush begins to swell in Karimabad’s Meena Bazaar. There is a greater crowd at the pushcarts on the street as compared to constructed shops.

    “Have the PTI folks come to you as part of their election campaign?” I ask a Memon jeweller.

    “No, not in the daytime at least. They pass through this main road sometimes, but they haven’t come to the market,” he says.

    In another shop, two Punjabi brothers welcome their clients. I ask them the same question, and nay is the reply again.

    “It almost feels as if the Arains of some village are fighting each other in this election campaign,” I remark.

    “Yes, yes it does! But there is always a powerful Arain and a less powerful Arain; MQM is the more powerful Arain, they have more bullocks,” laughs one of the brothers.

    “Have they ever bothered you? Has anyone asked for extortion money?”

    “It doesn’t work like that here. We only deal with our market committee, which is run by the MQM. Once a year, maybe twice, they’ll ask for a donation. For the MQM, these pushcart vendors are more important, because they have to deal with them lots more ... parking space, taxes, dealing with the police.”

    “Are these pushcart vendors all Urdu-speaking?”

    “Of course.”

    It is almost midnight, but there is much cacophony outside the JI election office on Shahrah-i-Pakistan, near Ayesha Manzil. JI chief Sirajul Haq is scheduled to address an election rally there the next day, along with party candidate Rashid Naseem, and preparations are in full swing.

    “JI Ameer Sirajul Haq will be arriving any moment to inspect arrangements,” blares the camp loudspeaker. “Keep your spirits high!”

    PTI candidate Imran Ismail has adopted the Shahid Afridi pose as his signature canvassing gesture

    PTI candidate Imran Ismail has adopted the Shahid Afridi pose as his signature canvassing gesture

    On the pavement is young Kamran Bhatti,* an activist of the Islami Jamiat Taliba (IJT), distributing campaign literature to bystanders. “The age of linguistic politics is over; you will soon see a new wave of religious politics across the country, MQM is fighting a losing battle,” he asserts.

    Bhatti speaks of corruption, government inefficiencies, and violence in the city — much of which he blames the MQM for having instituted. Then he switched tack:. “MQM campaigned only once for Aafia Siddiqui, we have been there for her consistently. Is she not a daughter of Karachi?”

    And what of the PTI?

    “They don’t have a local setup. If you want to work in Karachi, you have to work in neighbourhoods. They are good people, but they are no match for JI’s organisation,” he says, explaining that JI and IJT units are both working overtime to ensure Sunday’s public meeting is not an embarrassment.

    “The advantage that we have is that people genuinely believe that we are pious, honest people, who have served Karachi and this constituency before,” says Bhatti. “We have alliances with other religious organisations; we are together when it comes to driving out the MQM.”

    The next evening, Sirajul Haq’s show is undoubtedly impressive in its numbers. But even with religious politics, he is forced to present Prof. Ghafoor Ahmed as his party’s Urdu-speaking legacy. There is simply no escaping linguistic imagery in NA-246.

    Adjacent to the headquarters of the Khidmat-i-Khalq Foundation (KKF), a neighbourhood meeting has been convened, to be addressed by senior MQM leader Faisal Subzwari. There are about 20 or so members in this gathering; this is a largely young demographic, with only a handful of middle-aged men and elders among them. Most have had some association with the MQM or the All Pakistan Muttahida Students Organisation (APMSO), either directly or through their families.

    For the MQM, this prior association with the party makes them a group of “estranged” Urdu-speaking voters: in the last elections, many of them either voted PTI for both national and provincial seats, or voted PTI for the upper house and MQM for the provincial assembly.

    A PTI rally passes through Tahirwala Road

    A PTI rally passes through Tahirwala Road

    But they were important, as Subzwari explained, because they were young, educated, and were gainfully employed too. “They rightfully want answers from us and they are rightfully seeking some redressing of their complaints,” he says.

    As the meeting starts, there is palpable anger in the air. From the start, the young men shoot questions that are as direct and precise as they are angry.

    “Why aren’t there more like you?” aggressively asks a young man of Subzwari. “We want a suave leadership, but in the recent past, our local leadership is not people we can look up to. Has the party thought about that?”

    Another asks why the party is creating media space for its opponents by living up to its violent, uncouth stereotype.

    A third says that the politics of Mohajir nationalism is now redundant, and they need national solutions. “What do we do with this identity? It isn’t a selling point anymore. What is the party thinking about us, our lives, our employment?”

    Mohajir nationalism pervades the thrust of all replies, although that isn’t the sum of it. “I might have some answers for you, and for those that I don’t, we’ll find solutions together,” the leader tells the constituents.

    He invokes past struggles of successive Urdu-speaking generations in the MQM, recalling the tough times that many of them lived through together. Then there is service-delivery, particularly for Urdu-speaking people, which the MQM leader claimed his party excels at.

    “Times are tough now, we know that. But what distinguishes us from the others is that we have always been there for you, through thick or thin, in opposition and in government. Even if you weren’t to vote for us, we’ll still be there with the intent of serving you,” says the leader, before disclosing the alleged Rangers’ excesses during the recent raid on MQM headquarters, and claiming the party was being punished for its anti-Taliban stance.

    On the question of suave middle and lower tier leaderships, he admits that a more refined cadre needed to be created, but equally, that it was only over time that this process would be completed. “A new crop has been produced by the APMSO, maybe it is the kind that you will identify with more,” he says.

    The overwhelming influence of ‘Markaz’ in all electioneering activities makes Jinnah Ground a convenient venue to set up the MQM’s central election office

    The overwhelming influence of ‘Markaz’ in all electioneering activities makes Jinnah Ground a convenient venue to set up the MQM’s central election office

    The young men ask what the best way to remain in touch with him is. “Twitter and Facebook, I am always accessible there.”

    We depart with the air having cooled significantly. From this middle-class neighbourhood, we move to a more affluent one, Block 10-C and 11-C in F.B. Area.

    Two youngsters from the local MQM sector office greet us at the election office of the area. As fate would have it, senior MQM leader Dr Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui also arrives at the election office at the same time; it turns out that the local sector had struck gold by bagging two leaders for door-to-door campaigning on the same night.

    Both leaders exchange notes about their night of campaigning thus far. Dr Siddiqui says that he too met a few irate voters in the neighbourhood apart from the more content ones. “It’s our constituents’ right to tell us their grievances or even be angry with us, it’s our responsibility to listen to them,” he says to activists around him.

    Soon, Dr Siddiqui departs for another campaign office while Subzwari sets off on foot for his scheduled door-to-door meetings in the neighbourhood. Four men from the sector accompany him; they are said to have worked in the relevant mohallas.

    At the entrance of the vicinity, there is a Citizen Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) neighbourhood watch office. Inside, two men monitor who enters the neighbourhood on a CCTV system, but they have a complaint too: “The Rangers removed the barriers that we had set up; this is around the same time that Nine Zero was raided. They have severely compromised our ability to guard the neighbourhood.”

    The first house where the senior MQM leader rings the door bell is a corner house. An elderly man emerges from inside; his complaint is that of insecurity because of the removal of CPLC barriers. “We are the first house on this intersection, and I now feel like we are sitting ducks,” he says. “Yes, they’ve made us all very insecure,” nods Subzwari.

    Two houses down, another elderly man emerges to complain about MQM’s “media trial.” The leader replies that it does seem on the media that this is an election for the slot of the prime minister. The elderly man assures the leader that all votes in his house will be cast in the party’s favour.

    “The Rangers’ raid and the media trial have backfired,” argues Subzwari. “Instead of our voter being repelled, many have rallied around the party. This is why many leaders have opted to canvass on the ground rather than appear on talk shows, the elections are in our neighbourhoods not elsewhere.”

    Word is spreading in the neighbourhood that the senior MQM leader is canvassing. Young men have started following him around like he’s the Pied Piper, while elderly and middle-aged women have started coming out of their houses too. He spends time speaking to both, reasserting how important the youth and women are to the party. There are selfies and grandfies, there are duas and nazr utarna too. On polling day, this demographic would be crucial since it is a working day; the leader even tells one family that women will decide this by-election.

    Some 20 houses were reached in this first phase, but another 30 or so were still to go.

    “You didn’t need to come, of course the votes are yours,” say two elderly, bearded brothers, “but now that you are here, can you get our water supply problem fixed? We haven’t received water supply since the past 20 days. We lodged a complaint but we haven’t been given any explanations about when and how they’ll solve our problems.”

    The senior leader asks for feedback from the sector office.

    Within minutes, a young man who was said to be following up on the complaint arrives to provide a progress report. This is seemingly a problem of supply lines not having gravity on its side, which reduces supply to the tail-end. With everyone now on the same page, they send for the relevant local water board engineer. A few minutes later, he too arrives on the scene and explains how the problem can be solved.

    The canvassing contingent moves ahead.

    “Did you know that Rizvi Bhai’s sister’s family are returning from Dubai to cast their votes?” one of the sector activists lets slip.

    “Is he? I hear Mussadiq Bhai, the one who used to live at the end of this street, is also returning with his family,” replies Subzwari.

    “Jamal Bhai too, by the way. He is coming alone though.”

    “The overseas Pakistanis factor, which the PTI benefitted from in the last elections, seems to be in our favour for this by-poll,” Subzwari declares. “That’s what I was telling you earlier; MQM’s opponents might be sharpening their knives, but its voter has swung into action to defend and protect it.”

    After two hours, it is finally time for Imran Ismail to move. Young PTI activists had said he’d start door-to-door campaigning at 6pm, but there is a delay as party organisers wait for word from a police party that has gone ahead to scout and secure Ismail’s destination.

    By 7pm, we are good to go. Media vans and police mobile gear into action, as do the young PTI activists on their motorbikes. The flags have already been adjusted in their cars and hoisted on their bikes. Many young men use small PTI flags as veils to cover their faces. There is considerable risk wherever they go for canvassing, they claim, and this is the least they can do to protect themselves.

    “I am not sure about where we are going or the route,” says a young PTI organiser.”For security reasons, these details are shared only among a select few. Even insiders like us aren’t made privy to these details. We’ll just follow Imran Ismail’s vehicle; I suppose you should follow us.”

    The eventual destination turns out to be Haroonabad Food Street.

    Ismail and another PTI leader, Naz Baloch, leave their vehicles and begin meeting customers in various shops. Traffic though is gridlocked now, as Ismail’s vehicle and the accompanying media vans inch forward only when he does. The PTI has canvassed this market before, say shopkeepers; there is some support for them too.

    Earlier in the evening, the young PTI activists had described that they have pockets of support in the Ismaili community that lives in and around the area. Most of them voted PTI in the last elections, they claim, and one of their young men was killed too.

    “Because they didn’t vote for the MQM, their activists began harassing them. Every now and then, they are likely to run into a problem with a utility — water supply, telephone lines, etc., which the MQM people are not interested in solving,” the PTI activists allege. “Our going to Haroonabad gives them hope and courage to fight fear.”

    “We went to Bengali Para the other day to conduct a corner meeting,” narrates activist Jamal Siddiqi. “Did you know they still don’t have CNICs? This is a real issue that nobody is talking about. Karachi is a collection of migrants, not just one group of migrants, and all of them need their voices to be heard.”

    What about election arrangements?

    “They think we are short of polling agents, but that isn’t true. We have a number of volunteers at our office and through our campaign website. We also have backups ready in case someone cannot make it on the day,” says one PTI activist.

    In the meantime, Ismail has concluded his canvassing. He waves at the crowd and flashes a victory sign before settling in his vehicle. “Call us after 9pm, I am on a TV show till then. We might go into neighbourhoods later,” he says. Young men in the vehicle ahead of his chant “Naara-i-Imran, Jiyay Imran” and the caravan zooms forward.

    By 9.15pm, the PTI leaders have convened back at Sohni Shopping Centre. Door-to-door campaigning has been postponed for a day. There are some media engagements still to keep. There is the small matter of having dinner too.

    Soon, Imran Ismail is back at the camp on the street. “I want these kids to learn to stand up and fight for their principles,” says Ismail, “that’s why I am contesting.”

    Meanwhile, inside Khursheed Memorial Hall, a team of volunteers has arrived to design campaigns, offline and for social media, ahead of polling day. There are a number of professionals in this group: conceptual artists, visual artists, content writers, and even script writers.

    “The woman leading this team has volunteered her time till the 22nd, a night before polling. Our voters are trying to boost this campaign in ways that they are able to, and we are encouraging them to take ownership. The more, the merrier,” says another MQM leader, associated with the party since 1987.

    “NA-246 has historically voted in Altaf Hussain’s name, irrespective of who he selects to represent us. We had Nisar Panhwar and Nabil Gabol, both non Urdu-speaking, contesting and winning on this seat. When the MQM became Muttahida Qaumi Movement, Altaf Bhai wanted to symbolise the unity of ethnicities in the MQM by nominating a non Urdu-speaking from this constituency,” says another senior leader.

    “But constituency feedback this time around has been that those we selected in the recent past let us down badly. We tend to overlook this constituency sometimes; even under Mustafa Kamal’s city government, this area was the last to benefit. We never wanted an impression to be created that we only benefit our areas and not the rest of the city,” he argues.

    “But this time, our voter has demanded something different. Nominating an Urdu-speaking candidate after so long is Altaf Bhai’s way of saying that he has heard their voices. The candidate is an old MQM loyalist; he has served the people before in Hyderabad. It is important for Altaf Bhai to let Azizabad know that it is still vital to him.”

    *Names changed to protect privacy and identity

  • پچھلے دنوں ایک دوست کا سوال تھا کہ میں ایم کیوایم کی طرف جھکاؤ اختیار کر رہا ہوں میرا جواب تھا نہیں میں ہمیشہ کی طرح ایجنسیوں کی مخالفت کر رہا ہوں

    بھٹو خاندان کی مظلومیت کے دنوں میں لاڑکانہ اور نواز شریف کے برے دنوں میں گوالمنڈی روٹھے ہوئے کارکن کو منانے کی ضرورت ہی نہیں پڑتی تھی خود ہی واپس آجاتے تہے

    ایم کیو ایم کے خلاف فوجی متحرک ہوں اور ایم کیو ایم کا کارکن اور ووٹر اپنی پارٹی کو الیکشن نہ جتوائے نا ممکن ہے

  • بھٹو خاندان کی مظلومیت کے دنوں میں لاڑکانہ اور نواز شریف کے برے دنوں میں گوالمنڈی روٹھے ہوئے کارکن کو منانے کی ضرورت ہی نہیں پڑتی تھی خود ہی واپس آجاتے تہے

    When army took over from Bhotto and NS there was there was hardly any one on road to support them.. in case of MQM, whenever there is operation MQM supporters rejoin the party ignoring all they mess party leadership have created over the years.