Wednesday, May 07, 2008

An(other) Afternoon With Karachi Mayor Mustafa Kamal

This is the second in a two-part series of posts on meetings I attended with Karachi Nazim Mustafa Kamal. Click here to read about the first meeting, held at the Metropolitan Planning Council in downtown Chicago.

The second meeting was held here at the University of Chicago campus. The participants included the Mayor himself, his State Department handler, someone who looked like a Pakistan embassy official but who said nothing the whole time, a U of C Business School professor from Lahore, two members of the South Asia department (both faculty), and two members of the Political Science department (one faculty and your humble blogger). It was a lively meeting, wide-ranging in its scope, and fairly long - we sat at the table for over an hour.

Before we even started, I was mildly surprised/amused. Why? Because as soon as the Mayor walked in, he shook my hand and remembered my name from the previous day. Now, he probably met dozens of people in his time in Chicago, perhaps more. And yet he had no trouble recalling who I was - truly a politician's politician. (I can't remember where I read/heard this, but apparently Bill Clinton doesn't forget the name or face of anyone he's ever met. It may be one of those apocryphal tales, but I wouldn't bet on it; that dude's a smart cookie.)

Anyway, I'm going to divide the report of the meeting by subject matter.


The Mayor began, as he did the previous day, by talking about the most obvious challenges Karachi has historically faced, and continues to face. Despite contributing 68% of Pakistan's revenue - I wasn't quite clear if the Mayor meant Karachi contributes 68% of Pakistan's GDP or 68% of its tax revenue (it has to be the latter, doesn't it?) - the city has been "ignored by the establishment and our rulers". This led to a short discussion on...

The city's finances

Steven (the Poli Sci prof) asked the Mayor how he tackles revenue collection. With no money coming into the city from the provincial or federal government, how does he handle people not paying their bills and such? The Mayor told us that he's "taken a pragmatic approach." He also inadvertently - or perhaps not - showed how backward Karachi really is by turning conventional wisdom upside down, or rather back to front: "If you don't provide services, you won't get paid. So you spend money on them, and then they're more prepared to pay you." Of course he neglected to mention that many of the worst offenders do receive more than their fair share of "services" and yet still don't pay, but maybe he was in a generous mood.

He also mentioned what any Karachiite or Pakistani knows - that the worst citizens in this regard are the "big shots...or these elites". When he said those words, he spat them out, almost hissing them. Of course, he was only doing his duty in being an MQMer by holding the elite in scant regard, so it wasn't that big a deal. But no one was left under any illusions about this man's background - urban and middle class, just like the rest of his party. He told us that when his administration took office, he embarrassed the worst of them by publishing their names in daily newspapers, thus shaming them into paying their dues to the city.

Given that district governments aren't allowed to borrow, the Mayor spoke once again of his "public-private partnerships", a topic which dominated the previous day's discussions. By inviting the private sector to work in conjunction with the district government, the city guaranteed itself a steady stream of revenue and services provided.

Violence in Karachi

The Business School prof then asked him what he thought the possible solutions to violence in Karachi were. He brought up the 1980s and 1990s, a particularly traumatic time in the city's checkered political history. The Mayor had a fairly instructive answer. "Karachi consists of 18 towns," he began. "Fourteen of these are controlled by my party, the MQM." This was going to get good, I thought.

"Those four where the MQM hasn't had a Nazim elected have formed a bloc. But they never say anything bad about me. These are Nazims from the People's Party or the Muslim League, but until now, they haven't said anything about me.

"Why not?" he rhetorically asked. "Because in my first meeting with all of them, I emphasized teamwork. I told them, 'I am ready to work with everyone. But I expect the same from you in return.' I didn't discriminate against the other town's Nazims at all. I transferred all the funds they were owed; sometimes I gave them even more than their share.

"For example, there is a town called Lyari." This was going to get really good, I thought. Sadly for my depraved mind, there was no dart-throwing. "For the last 40, 50 years, it's been a People's Party home. They've enjoyed the base there. Believe me, it's the worst area of the country. There are no roads, no infrastructure, no hospital facilities, no water. But I provided them with facilities. I made sure there was development there so that the people's lives would get better.

"You see, I believe that actions speak louder than words. If I don't discriminate, then..." he changed thoughts mid-sentence. "The violence in Karachi is mainly because of our front-line role in the War on Terror. All these madrassa students...99% of them are from outside Karachi. They're from Afghanistan or from NWFP.

"We're a strategically important country, and our enemies know that if you hurt Karachi, you hurt Pakistan. We're facing many threats, many people want to destabilize us, they know where to hit us [Karachi]. So some of these things are out of our control."

Karachi's strange political structure

At this point, I finally got my first word in. I hadn't said a thing the previous day, but I felt more comfortable on Friday, mainly because I felt it was my turf - the meeting was in Pick Hall, for crying out loud, a building where I'm in only every day. Of course, my first words were...AKS'.

Let me explain. Before meeting with the Mayor, I asked AKS, who lives in Karachi, for his thoughts. Useful thoughts they were too, because I am fairly unaware of city politics. Anyway, AKS wrote back and, among other things, told me the following:
As Mayor of Karachi Mustafa Kamal has control over only 34 % of the city; the rest lies with Cantonment Boards, Railways, Karachi Port Trust, etc. I never knew fact until very recently; the only reason I now know this is because the whole of Karachi is talking about the development in that 34% and people are actively lobbying to hand over the other 66% to the CDGK.

So there you go. Karachi isn't actually governed by the Karachi city government but by a panoply of institutions with cross-cutting jurisdictions. Anyway, I imagine this must be frustrating for the Mayor; being the head of a city that he doesn't actually control in its totality. So I asked him his thoughts on the peculiar political structure of Pakistan, and whether or not he'd made any efforts to change it.

In response, he first thanked me for bringing it up (Your welcome, Mayor! And thanks, AKS!) and reiterated that it is, indeed, challenging. "Karachi has 13 bosses, including six cantonment boards, the DHA, the Civilian Aviation Authority, the Port Trust, all these other organizations. They control the land, the municipal services, they collect taxes from these area. The problem is that if anything goes wrong, people blame the city district government because they don't know that Karachi is divided this way.

"You see, there's no unity of command. Unity of command is very important. In Karachi, we don't even control the police; they are controlled by the provincial government." I repeated my question, which he wasn't answering: have any steps been taken to attempt to unify command?

"The Master Plan contains plans for legal jurisdiction over the whole city. We've gone to the Supreme Court of Pakistan to get this pushed. It's under process, but these other agencies are working under federal law, and so the federal law has to be amended." He didn't sound hopeful.

Steven pointed out that in all likelihood there are very good strategic reasons for maintaining the status quo. What strong centers or strong provinces want least is a city of 18 million people with one unqualified leader; that will erode their authority. In other words, it is in the center's and province's interests to keep alive these cross-cutting zones of authority so as to circumscribe the institutional power of the Mayor. He found little argument from across the table.

Steven summed up the discussion with the question: "Is the center prepared to devolve power? That is the crucial question." The Mayor scoffed, and referenced the controversy over the Water and Sewerage Board and the Building Control Authority, which were removed from his control and handed over to the provincial government by the, yup you guessed it, the provincial government. "Forget getting new departments; we're losing the ones we already have. All it took was 20 days after the formation of the coalition."

This led to by far the most entertaining portion of the interview. Mustafa Kamal, unplugged on the PPP, waderas, zamindars, and feudals (yeah, I know - same thing):

The PPP and its feudal culture

"Let me tell you something. Sindh has 23 districts and Karachi is only one of them. When you go in interior Sindh, 50% of the population has Hepatitis B because they don't have clean drinking water. This Minister [Agha Siraj Durrani] doesn't care about them; instead he cares more about these things. This was an illegal notification. It was an illegal notification. We put thirty billion rupees into those two departments so he wants to take credit for that, he wants control over that. This was an illegal notification.

"You see this party," he said, without actually naming it, "this party is called the moderate party. But moderates doesn't mean you go to discos or casinos. It's a feudal party; it has a feudal mentality. The party is forty years old, and when its leader died, the chose a 17 year-old boy [sic] to lead it. He hasn't even finished his education and they chose him without any elections or anything. This is not democracy, this is a feudal mentality. There were so many elders, so many seniors in the party. Amin Fahim spent his whole life in that party, but they did not choose him for Prime Minister because of their feudal mentality.

"This is why they're inviting us to join the government. They are not doing us any favors. They are afraid that Amin Fahim will leave the party and make a splinter group, so they're calling us in government to make sure he doesn't go. But we don't want to become a scapegoat for their future problems. We know they will get in trouble and we don't want to get the blame for that."

The Mayor was really cooking now, building up steam and raising his voice slowly but surely. "You see, my party is a middle-class reformist movement. We're not feudals. We're a threat to the status quo. No matter what party you ask; they could have everything different but they will agree on one thing: that they hate us and we are the enemy. Why? Because of this, because we're not like them.

"I'm nobody. I'm just from the middle-class. I'm not a politician's son, or an industrialist's son, or a feudal's son. But in our country, these waderas, these feudals, these sardars, they dominate the system.

"Let me tell you something. If I wasn't in this party, I couldn't even become a union council member anywhere because my father was nobody."

He was now full on in the chip-on-the-shoulder mood that so exemplifies the MQM. "We have 25 seats in the National Assembly, we have 51 Provincial Assembly Seats. We have mayors in Karachi in Hyderabad. The Governor of Sindh is from our party. We have 2 senators." What he was trying to prove with those numbers was somewhat beyond me; he really didn't have to convince anyone in the room that the MQM was a force to be reckoned with in national politics. In any event, his diatribe against the PPP and its feudal culture, along with his vociferous selling off the MQM, had successfully raised the temperature in the room, not necessarily to an uncomfortable level but discernibly so. One of the South Asia department professors brought it back down by asking about...

Illegal immigration

The Mayor admitted it is a problem. "This situation will become worse if it is not checked. You have people from different backgrounds coming and grabbing land. We know what's going on but we can't stop it because we don't control the police.

"This is a security problem, not just an economic problem. 99% of these people are Afghans and they take the shelter of the word 'refugees'." The South Asia prof asked for confirmation of that number; according to her many immigrants are from Bangladesh, Burma and other states in South Asia. "No, no," he replied. "Most of them are Afghans. The Bengalis - the Bangladeshis - they are now going back because their economy is booming, it is growing more than before."

Pakistan's future

The discussion tangentially returned to the political fractures in Pakistan, but focused on the challenges Pakistan faces in the coming years. "I have told them: the choice is yours. If you want to destroy the country in a few weeks, go ahead. Pakistan can not absorb more shocks or crises. We have so many crises right now, the flour prices and fuel prices and food prices. We cannot have more shocks, it will ruin the country. If the common people realize it, why can't they? The word "Pakistan" is not imprinted in the Quran; it is not a permanent thing. It will disappear if you don't take care of it." It was very, very clear that the entire KWSB and Building Control Authority episodes had really, for lack of a better term, pissed the Mayor off.

The Mayor's future

The discussion looked like it was going to wrap up soon, so I asked my second question, concerning the Mayor's future. Not yet 40, a rising star within his party and having led a largely successful administration in Karachi, I wanted to know about his future. "Would you like to hold any higher office in the future?" He reply was predictable, typical of all politicians who of course have no ambition whatsoever: "No, not at all. I do not have wishes for higher office. Not at..." I interrupted, and rephrased the question so as to withdraw any trace of personal ambition. "Ok, what if your party asked you. What would you say then?"

"I would say no. Leadership is not a bed of roses. I would be reluctant, and I would fight against it. I would say no to them."

Keep that line in your memory, kids. I have a feeling we'll be coming back to it at some point in the future.

Schools/Education in Karachi

The last topic we discussed substantively - I'm excluding the "you must visit Karachi and Pakistan" invitations and "you must return to Chicago some time" counter-invitations and the "thank you for coming, it was an absolute pleasure" pleasantries - was the state of education in Karachi. It was common knowledge that government schools are in a shambolic state, and the Mayor did not hide this fact. Instead he emphasized the role non-government actors have to play. "Yes, there are big problems with education. But here too we are going for our 'Private-Public Partnerships'. We understand the government alone cannot bring a revolution in education. We've told all the NGOs and critics, 'Ok, you come in and help us'. We've given them the responsibility. All your ideas, you implement them. We've created a new board under the city government which has 50, 55 people. I have told the bureaucracy to obey what they say. And we're slowly bringing change in every aspect, like computers, the syllabus, hardware, desks, chairs."

So that was that. On the whole, as I said in an earlier post, I was impressed with him. He knew what he was talking about, and he seemed passionate about real reform. He has interesting ideas about how to go about fixing the infrastructural disaster that is Karachi, most notably involving a greater role for the private sector. And he seems intimately aware of the very serious challenges that the city faces. Best of all, he's a problem solver, which is the way I like my politicians. I hate leaders telling me they're going to "end corruption" or "bring democracy" because such large-scale institutional reform is outside the purview of individual actors. What individual actors can do, however, is fix the potholes on my street and make sure the traffic signals work. That's Mustafa Kamal: a problem solver.

What didn't impress me about him? Mainly his temperament. There's a difference between passion and outright aggression, and he crossed it a number of times, especially when talking about the PPP. You can take a man out of the middle-class, but I guess you can't take the middle-class out of the man. We were having a civil discussion, amongst academics, not even real policy-makers for crying out loud, and he was losing it. Should a politician really have that much difficult with diplomatic norms?

At any rate, it was an extremely enjoyable discussion and I was glad I was able to attend. My thanks to Steve Wilkinson for giving me the opportunity to do so, and my thanks to the Mayor for visiting our humble abode.


Zeeshan ( said...

"You can take a man out of the middle-class, but I guess you can't take the middle-class out of the man"
dude that was pretty offensive.
I have no idea how 80% of Pakistani population is generalized by the behaviour of a single persom
PS:i belong to same clan that is referred to as middle class-see-yay by 2% of pakistani

Ahsan said...


Hahahaha I'm not sure why you find it offensive. The point I was making is that the Mayor was not behaving as you might expect a diplomat to behave. Furthermore, I suspect that he doesn't *care* that he didn't behave like you might expect a diplomat to behave. As should be evident from the discussion, he is very proud of his non-elitist roots. My suspicion is that he conflates diplomatic norms with upper-class elitist cultural hegemony more than anything else.

Actually, now that I think about it, I wouldn't put my money on many Pakistan politicians - irrespective of their background - to maintain a certain decorum. Off the top of my head, I can only think of people like BB (cool as a cat).

Asad said...

whilst the efforts and accomplishments of the mayor are admirable (to say the least) i can't help but wonder how he reconciles his love for karachi, and his visions for the city with the deadly violence espoused by his party.

i don't mean to belittle his efforts... perhaps this question involves an understanding of karachi that a non-karachiite may not have.

i guess my question is where do you think the MQM draws lines between it's sincere want to do good for karachi, and violence that seems premeditated, more often than not (e.g last summer's carnage at the arrival of the deposed CJ)?

Ahsan said...


A few quick thoughts:

1. I don't think the MQM necessarily *does* draw a line between doing good for the city and violence that is premeditated. To paraphrase Clausewitz, violence is politics by other means. They're violent because they want control of Karachi; they want control of Karachi because they think they're the best suited to rule it.

2. This doesn't go directly to your point, but it bears mentioning that political violence can never appear in a vacuum. Furthermore, political violence can never occur with only one side intent on violence, because if that was the case, the peace-loving side would strike a bargain because conflict is costly. In other words, absent incomplete information, both sides have to want violence for violence to occur. What I'm trying to say is: violence is strategic, and it's not just the MQM that behaves this way. It's just that MQM gets the worst rap for this because of (a) its excesses, (b) historical-social factors, and (c) they're the most dominant and pervasive power in Karachi city politics.

3. In my mind, the best way to make the MQM a more peaceful organization is give it a bigger stake in national politics. Of course, this means that it has to spread its tentacles a little bit - admittedly, it has done so in the last 5-7 years - to places like rural Punjab and NWFP. I believe that if the MQM was a truly national party, its trigger-happy mentality in Karachi would be significantly curtailed, because then its focus would be spread a little bit and losing ground in Karachi would not be the be-all and end-all for them.

zeyd said...

Great work man. Really informative stuff.

Anonymous said...

PPPP is enemy of Karachi.
They have just fuedla lords like the drinker Agha siraj durrani who even doesn't have atiquates to speak.
Karachites always hate these fedual class and votes against them [except some criminal background areas or illetrate peoples areas of Karachi]
Long Live Karachi.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto kutaey kee mout muraa so do Benazir Zardari.