When it comes to Pakistani politics, few would deny that Qaim Ali Shah stands in a league of his own. With 56 years of political experience, no Pakistani politician comes close to matching Qaim Ali Shah’s record. Although there are many who criticise his tenure as Sindh chief minister, fans and critics alike could benefit from learning more about this elusive, polite politician.
In the 1960s, at around the start of his political career, Qaim was well known as a lawyer in his home district of Khairpur Mirs. As a Jilani Syed, that was a somewhat non-traditional career path for Qaim. Family members remember haris, kisans and mazdoors crowding the little autak at Jilani House long after office hours for Qaim’s help with their legal disputes. His financial cushion, or what some family members call his charitable spirit, allowed him to fight their cases for free.
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Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s role in his transition to politics was considerable. At Karachi’s SM Law College, Qaim, Bhutto’s devoted pupil, was greatly inspired by his teacher. Qaim’s friends recall how that period helped forge a relationship that would last Bhutto’s life and beyond.
Officially, Qaim started politics by supporting Fatima Jinnah’s presidential campaign against Field Marshal Ayub Khan. Later, he was elected vice chairman of Khairpur city as part of Ayub’s Basic Democracy system.
When Bhutto called for the formation of the PPP in 1967, Qaim responded shortly after, joining ranks with founding members of the party. Qaim contested Pakistan’s first universal adult suffrage elections in 1970 on a PPP ticket, winning the MNA seat from Khairpur Mirs.
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Recognising his capabilities and popularity, Bhutto appointed Qaim to his cabinet first as senior minister in Sindh, with eight portfolios, including law, parliamentary affairs and revenue. In that capacity, Qaim helped Hafeez Pirzada and others draft Pakistan’s current 1973 Constitution. Later, in 1974-75, Bhutto appointed Qaim as federal minister for Industries, Agrarian Management, Kashmir and Northern Affairs. Considering that industries, agriculture and Kashmir affairs were central to his agenda, Bhutto appointed Qaim trusting his loyalty, moderate temperament and appeal among workers.
In a cabinet otherwise composed of landlords or academics, Qaim was a notable exception. Despite his zameendari background and strong academic record, Qaim stood apart because of his ability to build a rapport with those less privileged. Close observers of Qaim’s politics would do well to note that the compassion, humility and loyalty that helped propel him to office then, have also helped him sustain his long career in politics.
With the fall of Bhutto’s government in 1979, General Zia’s regime imprisoned Qaim along with other ministers and party members.
While many PPP ‘uncles’ — Ghulam Mustafa Khar, Makhdoom Khaliquz Zaman, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi and others – left the party, ratted on Benazir and Nusrat Bhutto or became inactive, Qaim stood steadfastly by the party, refusing to budge an inch or testify against the Bhuttos.
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Qaim spent the 11 years of General Zia’s rule either in prison or underground. When not in prison or a torture cell, Qaim was writing articles at Mir Asghar’s place, surreptitiously organising the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD) from Dr Sabir Shah’s home or taking telephonic instructions from Benazir at Jalbani sahab’s home.
As dark as General Zia’s reign was for Pakistan, it was darker still for Qaim, his family, and families of other MRD workers. With family accounts frozen and lands occupied by Gen Zia-supporting tenants, Qaim’s wife, Husn Afroze, sister of the renowned Sindhi lawyer AK Brohi, died because of lack of funds for advanced cancer treatment. His nephew, Pervaiz Ali Shah, who was imprisoned along with him, endured six years of torture in General Zia’s torture cells, attaining ‘Prisoner of Conscience’ status in Amnesty International’s 1985 report. Qaim’s children went to school at St Joseph’s Convent in Karachi on the virtual charity of nuns and family friends.
If Qaim had been made of a substance that bent, or was corruptible, he surely would have given up in those 11 years, if not for himself, than for his children, but he did not. As political commentators sometimes correctly note: Qaim Ali Shah is loyal, almost to a fault, and at times more than is good for him.
With General Zia’s death and Benazir’s return to power in 1988, Qaim was among the only uncles whom Benazir trusted. Following his victory from Khairpur Mirs, he was elected as Sindh’s chief minister during the brief of tenure of Benazir’s first government. Although he stepped down slightly before the end of her tenure, Qaim has confirmed on public record that his ouster was part of a plan to topple Benazir’s first government. During Benazir’s second government, Bilawal House preferred having Abdullah Shah, the more pliant, less questioning, other Shah, elected as Sindh chief ninister. History knows well how excellent Abdullah Shah’s tenure was for the PPP and the Bhuttos.
Benazir needed Qaim back at her side in 1996. In the only available footage of Murtaza Bhutto’s funeral, Qaim and Nusrat Bhutto flank Benazir. After the PPP’s overall routing in the 1997 elections, Qaim returned for a brief tenure in the capital as a senator.
Following General Musharraf’s 2002 elections, Qaim reclaimed the Khairpur MPA seat and returned to his Sindhi political base. At that time, when several PPP members, notably the Legharis and at least one Jilani, crossed the floor to help General Musharraf, again, Qaim stood squarely by the PPP. He did so despite the PPP’s failing to complete a single term in the 1990s.
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The PPP’s eventual victory in 2008 propelled Qaim back to the helm of affairs. His affable temperament, politeness, humility, non-reactionary politics, rapport with PPP stalwarts, and ability to take along politicians of various stripes and colours helped the PPP survive its term in office. Nevertheless, that period was not without tensions. Even with his general affability, Qaim found it hard to accept some orders, especially those that came from front men, non-PPP stalwarts and a certain politician’s brother-in-name.
Although critics may rightly criticise the PPP’s first term in office for several shortcomings in governance, savvy commentators know well that mere survival of a PPP-led government in Sindh and Pakistan is a feat unto itself. Considering its history, repairing ties with the MQM and the establishment require extraordinary trust-building exercises and concessions, none of which are conducive to particularly effective governance, of course.
Having done some things right, Qaim Ali Shah led the PPP to secure a landslide majority in Sindh in the 2013 elections, with the party securing an unparalleled clear majority in the Sindh Assembly. For the first time since 1976, a sitting PPP chief minister led the party to victory. He did so even though the PPP leadership was unable to campaign for security reasons and the party was routed in other provinces.
For his second term, critics may correctly cite the lack of Shahbaz Sharif-style, iron-fisted governance, general inertia, and even more general, sometimes comical, sometimes pity warranting, bumbling along. Savvy students of Sindh politics, however, know well the difficulties involved in dealing with multiple stakeholders and taking along a party marred by internal leadership struggles. Sindh is not Punjab, any more than it is Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or Balochistan. While this is no defence of governance shortcomings, this is a political account of the intricacies involved in surviving amidst parallel governments, external control and limited manoeuvring space.
That Qaim survived eight consecutive years as an elected chief minister from the PPP is something of a feat in itself. That he won every election he contested between 1960 and now, with the exception of 1997, is again, an uncommon accomplishment for a Pakistani politician. Most significantly, he managed to have a career spanning 56 years without any accusation of corruption in a country where politicians are otherwise dogged by corruption scandals.
Those who know Qaim, know him to be a simple, calm man of few words.
To recall what is now a running joke, as reported by a bureaucrat: President Zardari once asked Qaim Ali Shah about his watch, commenting that he had seen Qaim wearing that worthless watch for as long as he could remember.
“Why don’t you buy a better watch?” President Zardari asked Qaim in front of bureaucrats and others present. Qaim replied, “It tells the time as good as any other Mr President.”
That then, is Qaim Ali Shah. He owns no expensive watches, wears locally stitched shalwar kameez and suits, does not know which car he owns, if any, and declined the fancy sunglasses someone once tried to gift him.
A vegetarian who enjoys Sindhi bhaji with roti, Qaim is punctual with his prayers, often praying Isha late into the night, fasts in Ramazan despite his progressing years (insisting in face of protests that he finds fasting spiritually beneficial), walks frequently, never raises his voice, entertains his children and grandchildren with the occasional joke, and takes pride in their hard work and academic accomplishment.
At 84, he remembers the names and details of workers of his party better than those of his children and grandchildren. To him, the Pakistan Peoples Party is his life, his first love, his family. Having raised it from its birth and seen it through its various triumphs and failures, Qaim looks on his party as any doting father would, sometimes happy with its accomplishments, at other times disappointed by its failures.
In all, in his consistent service to his constituency, constant electoral victories, contribution to Pakistan’s Constitution, grip over Sindhi realpolitik, avoidance of financial and other scandals, humility and loyal service, he stands apart from other politicians. When the history of Pakistan’s meandering political transition to liberal democracy is written, the avid historian would do well to record the role of Sindh’s Qaim Saeen.
The writer is a full time faculty member at IBA Karachi and a graduate of Cambridge and Georgetown universities. She is the granddaughter of Qaim Ali Shah and tweets at @MoruShah.