The by-election in NA-246 was supposed to be a game-changer. However, the result showed that there were not the changes expected, perhaps because the problems of the constituents have not been addressed by either the federal or provincial government.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that neither of the mainstream national parties had a hope of winning the by-election. That the party defending the seat, the MQM, had partnered both parties is also an indication of the reality of that constituency, of that city. That the party hoping to make an impact was the PTI showed it as the challenger of the present. The seat had been vacated by the resignation of Nabeel Gabol, who had won the seat in the 2013 general election, and was expected to go into the PTI next. Gabol had been elected an MNA in 2008 on a PPP ticket from interior Sindh. The by-election did not just illustrate that Gabol had been given a safe seat, but also that its support base had not been dented by the raid on Nine Zero and the alleged arrest of target killers from it. It also showed the MQM that being out of government did not really affect its election results.

The mainstream parties have not really challenged the MQM in Karachi or Hyderabad, except for the PML-N since 1990. When the MQM boycotted the 1993 election, the PML-N won big in Karachi, as did the Jamaat Islami. The Jamaat had been replaced by the MQM in the 1987 municipal election. It had won the mayorship of Karachi in the 1979 and 1983 elections, but it too had failed to solve the problems of Muhajirs, and the community had opted for a more ethnic representative, which did not have any pretentions except solving Muhajir problems.

It is possible to see the Muhajirs as never following the political mainstream. Karachi, originally a Baloch village, was developed by the Raj as a second port for western India, following Bombay, especially during World War II. Very soon after, when Pakistan was created, it became its only port, and also its federal capital. It thus became a magnet for Muhajirs, who arrived in the new land from the rest of India. However, they lacked a provincial identity. This was not conceded to them by the Sindhis, who were both proud and protective of their language. It perhaps did not help that the migrants had as their first language the new national language. This led to the propagation of a national identity at the expense of a provincial one. It is perhaps symptomatic that the two religious parties, which won favour in Karachi, were led for a long time by clerics of Muhajir origin, the Jamaat Islami by Maulana Abul Ala Maudoodi and the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan by Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani. Neither was a chauvinist, as both shared in the orthodoxy which rejected ethnicity, but it is no coincidence that the Jamaat’s ouster in Karachi came after the replacement of Maulana Maudoodi by Mian Tufail Muhammad, who might be a migrant, but was a Punjabi, and then by Qazi Hussain Ahmad, who was a Pashtoon. It is also worth noting that the MQM was founded at a time when a Punjabi Muhajir, General Ziaul Haq, had taken power after becoming head of the Army. The next military takeover was by a full-blown Muhajir, General Pervez Musharraf. It was perhaps no coincidence that Muhajirs were rising to the head of the military. Though it tried to rise above regionalism, it was also a federal institution, whose members also promoted the national language.

It should not be forgotten that the appeal of the PTI is not due to Imran Khan being from Jullunder on his mother’s side, but as an alternative to the MQM. The more prosperous Muhajirs apparently do not approve of the excesses of the MQM, but cannot turn to the two mainstream parties. The PPP may well be too Sindhi, and the PML-N too Punjabi. However, there has been no turning to the PTI.

At the same time, the by-election was a sort of preliminary for the local body polls. Cantonment board elections all over the country have not yielded the PTI sweep that some had predicted for it, and the MQM seems set to returning to the control of Karachi, Hyderabad and other Sindhi cities, as in the past.

It has long been observed that by-elections see a protest vote, which benefits challengers. That might explain why the MQM vote fell below 100,000 votes. However, the constituency has seen the MQM vote go down. It will take time to be eliminated, but it does seem that the MQM may not be succeeding as assuredly as it did. It polled 186,933 in the 2008 poll, 137,874 in 2013, but 93,125 in this by-election. In 2008, the main opponent was the PPP, which polled 6741 votes. In this by-election, the main opponent was the PTI, which polled 22,885 votes. In the general election, it had polled 31,975 votes, The Jamaat candidate got 8000 votes, which means that the anti-MQM vote came down. The MQM lead, which had been an overpowering 180,000 in 2008, as befitted the constituency that contained the MQM headquarters, to about 70,000 this time. It is still a safe seat, but it now seems that MQM voters are tiring of piling up those huge but meaningless majorities. Or it may be that some of those voters are seeking an alternative.

It should not be forgotten that those tremendous majorities are only racked up by a high level of organization. That organization may be blunted, and that is something the MQM must consider seriously. Yet it is clear that for better or worse, MQM voters still see the party as the best available means of voicing their aspirations to the government. It is not correct to blame the result on rigging, for that would imply the involvement of the law enforcing agencies, including the Rangers, who helped in the supervision of the poll. Such a result only occurs when the voters themselves wink at rigging. Though the vote count may not reflect the distribution of support, it would reflect the wishes of the constituency.

It almost seems as if the parties and the Muhajir community are both spinning in circles. Muhajirs have problems, which need solutions. The parties do not seem able to solve them. Now it seems the MQM might be found wanting. That history of betrayal might well be holding Karachi back from supporting the PTI, and the by-election showed that the MQM is still to be reckoned with.