The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)-led federal government has agreed to work with the Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) provincial government in Sindh to clean Karachi, which has been devastated after the recent spell of heavy rains.
Both provincial and federal governments maintain that their cooperation is necessary to uplift the city from the present disaster. However, high stakes political games are being played in Karachi, too, underscoring that any such cooperation is not likely to solidify.
Both PPP and PTI have been competing to rule the city for many years. PPP’s provincial government in Sindh doesn’t have much electoral support in Karachi — it lost heavily to the PTI there in the last general election. In terms of the city’s representation in the parliament, PTI has become Karachi’s biggest party after winning 13 of 21 National Assembly seats in the last election. In one of the biggest upsets of 2018’s general election, PTI defeated PPP’s chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari in Lyari, a constituency which has been considered the party’s stronghold for decades.
PPP’s continual loss of political space to PTI in Karachi is not something which the party is ready to accept. Thus, after 2018’s election, Karachi become a battlefield for the two parties’ political games. PTI has been using its constitutional muscle at the federal level to hold PPP responsible for Karachi’s troubles, mainly by highlighting its poor governance record. On the other hand, PTI’s federal government has poured funds on its lawmakers from the city in what appears to be a move to discredit PPP’s lack of focus on the provincial level vis-à-vis Karachi’s development.
PPP, for its part, has held on to whatever constitutional tools it has at its disposal to keep PTI’s political and electoral encroachment in Karachi at bay. For instance, last year PTI’s lawmakers from Karachi launched a campaign to clean the city in coordination with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement-led local government and other federal institutions like Frontier Works Organization (FWO) and the National Logistics Cell. The drive bypassed the provincial government’s role and accused PPP of plundering Karachi’s resources.
“Let us bring [the waste] to zero and then you [the PPP government] can maintain it, send less money to Dubai and maintain the city,” said one of the PTI’s Karachi lawmakers in a veiled reference to the PPP-led Sindh government. The PTI’s “Clean Karachi” drive didn’t make a difference beyond earning the party prime time in local news and social media appreciation. Within a month of its launch, the drive was scaled back on accusations that PPP’s provincial government was hindering the initiative.
Understandably, the campaign didn’t sit well with PPP as it termed the initiative “interference” by the federal government in provincial matters. The provincial government said that the cleanliness drive was nothing more than a photo op.
The next big opportunity for PTI to barricade PPP’s work in Karachi came with the emergence of the COVID-19 crisis. Over the last six months, both parties have traded blame over their respective decisions regarding how to handle the pandemic. PTI continues to call the PPP-led Sindh government’s “complete lockdown” policy a failure. In May, PTI Karachi leadership vowed to resist the provincial government if it imposed a broad lockdown in the metropolis. Blaming the provincial government for the spread of the virus in Sindh, one PTI lawmaker said, “The world is coming to realize that lockdowns are not the solution [to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic].”
PPP’s leadership said that Prime Minister Imran Khan was dividing the country with his COVID-19 policies. The party also accused PTI of spreading the virus in Karachi via its newly launched Ehsaas Kifalat aid Program. PPP’s leadership regretted that the COVID-19 aid initiative was being promoted separately from the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), which it claimed provided effective infrastructure to distribute aid to needy families. Questioning the motives behind the federal government’s COVID-19 aid, PPP’s senior leader Sherry Rehman said that “If the [PTI] government is actually so concerned about the destitute, then why did it not ensure that BISP’s budget was increased?”
The mismanagement on the part of the city’s authorities in the face of the recent spell of heavy rains has opened the flood gates of criticism and scrutiny against PPP’s provincial government. Issues such as the non-availability of clean water, absent public transportation, broken drainage networks, ineffective electricity infrastructure and the rampant construction of poorly planned housing projects have ravaged the lives of more than 20 million people.
The ensuing pressure from the city’s residents has forced both the central and provincial governments to cooperate, albeit temporarily. To an extent, this cooperation has come due to the military’s intervention. This is probably the first time that the residents of high-end military managed housing societies in Karachi have come out in greater numbers to protest due to the recent flooding. This should be a cause of concern for the national security establishment as the last thing they need right now is the residents of their private housing projects up in arms against their real estate ventures.
A recent meeting chaired by Khan on Karachi’s flooding was also attended by the head of Pakistan’s intelligence agency. In a separate visit, Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Bajwa was briefed on the city’s flooding and efforts to resolve the crisis. “Our issue is not non-availability of resources but setting priorities right,” Bajwa said in a statement issued by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). “The plans being made by the federal and provincial governments [for Karachi] will have Army’s all out support as having future repercussions on economic security of the country,” he further noted.
Arguably, PPP sees the federal government and the military’s growing role in Karachi as an attack on its political future. For example, PPP’s leadership worries that the federal government may impose governor rule in Sindh to bring the megacity under its control. As rains devastate the city, PPP has warned that Karachi cannot be turned into a PTI “colony” while Khan has tasked military-run institutions with cleaning the city and has ensured “unlimited funds” to do so.
These big stake political games are being played at the cost of a city which is Pakistan’s economic lifeline. Considered the financial and industrial hub of Pakistan, the city “counts for 54 percent of the central government tax revenues and 70% of national income tax revenue which means that it generates $21 million in daily tax revenues,” notes Laurent Gayer Gayer in his book “Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City.” Moreover, the city “handles 95 percent of the country’s international trade, contributes 30 percent to its manufacturing sector and holds 50 percent of its bank deposits.”
Karachi’s annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) stands at around $164 billion. Thus, the shutdown of Karachi due to the recent flooding is “costing Pakistan approximately $449 million every day,” argued one Pakistani media outlet in late August.
Despite the city’s centrality for Pakistan’s economic future, Karachi is in ruins. Karachi is ranked among one of the worst cities in the Global Livability Index. A World Bank Group report, titled “Transforming Karachi into a Livable and Competitive Megacity” claimed that “a highly complex political economy, highly centralized but fragmented governance, land contestation among many government entities, and weak institutional capacity has made it difficult to manage the city’s development.” The report warned that the city’s current growth and governance model is not sustainable and the city’s GDP contribution to Pakistan has become stagnant.
Whoever controls Karachi, controls the province of Sindh and a crucial supply of capital nationally. This is a battle which PPP is not going to lose or compromise on. If PPP’s provincial government loses control of resources to PTI in Karachi or allows the national government to have its way in the city’s politics, its rule is virtually over. This is one of the reasons that PPP has not supported any changes in the 18th constitutional amendment as it offers the party control of funds at the provincial level.
It is unlikely that PPP and PTI are going to deliver anything when it comes to Karachi’s fate as the political interests of both parties place them on a collision course. The military, on the other hand, has too much on its plate and is not keen on giving governance space to PPP, which is not assisting it in constitutional matters, including changes to the 18th constitutional amendment. Perhaps, amid this disordered situation, PTI will see an opportunity to sideline one of its main political contenders from a city that could define the party’s political fortunes and relevancy in the Pakistani politics.
Unfortunately, all of this is taking place at the cost of a city that serves as the backbone of Pakistan’s economy and has been devastated by political and natural disasters.