It’s a story of rag to riches. It’s a story of hard work paying off. It’s a story of perseverance, patience and persistence. It’s a story of the incredible rise of a nominally-educated teenager who left his dirt-poor village in the early 1970s to try his luck in Karachi. It’s the story of Senator Shahi Syed, the president of the Sindh chapter of Pashtun nationalist Awami National Party.
Syed’s beginning is humble. And he doesn’t hide it. “My father was a modest landowner in Babuzai village of Mardan district,” Syed recalls. “But the land was arid and the income barely sufficient for our family’s sustenance,” he says sitting in a vintage sofa in the neatly-decorated drawing room of his pricey mansion in the posh Defence neighbourhood of Karachi. Large framed photos of maverick Pashtun leader Abdul Ghaffar Khan, his son Abdul Wali Khan and grandson Asfandyar Wali overlook from a niche.
In white shalwar-qameez and black waistcoat and hair dyed jet black, Syed, looks more of a transporter than politician. He also looks awfully naïve, his demeanor, at times, grotesquely simple. He has no pretensions, no airs. He talks plain, in the tongue of those he represents. “After passing the eighth grade at a state-run middle school, I decided to move to Karachi in search of a job,” Syed says and pauses as a young servant comes in to serve qehwa. “My father was reluctant – but relented when I persisted,” he says.
Back then, Karachi was the most welcoming city for the Pashtuns workforce from the north. Hundreds of thousands of Pashtuns had left their impoverished regions to work as day labourers, security guards, drivers and construction workers in Karachi. “I stayed at my uncle’s place in Karachi and took up a petty job at Dockyard – only to quit it three months later,” Syed says.
Over the next five or six years, Syed worked at different private firms and factories until he saved enough money to buy an auto-rickshaw on installments. “A few years later I bought a taxi – also on installments,” Syed says. “This is how I entered the transport business.” Lady luck smiled on him and his transport business flourished. In subsequent years, he tried his luck at different other businesses – gasoline, poultry, dairy and even textile. And finally settled for the gasoline business.
Syed was no ideologue, no political activist. Nonetheless, he loved his ‘godforsaken community’ and wanted to help the ‘impoverished and neglected Pashtuns’ of Karachi. In the 1980s he contested the local government elections – but lost. This, however, didn’t dampen his passion for community service.
Syed’s entry in ANP was purely by accident. “Let me be honest. I wouldn’t say I was impressed with the philosophy of Bacha Khan [Ghaffar Khan],” he says. Politics was unbeknown to him. It had never crossed his mind that one day he would lead a political party at the provincial level.
“It was 2001. ANP President Asfandyar Wali was visiting Karachi to set up his party’s headquarters [now called Bacha Khan Markaz] in Banaras locality. Pashtun businessmen friends invited me to a function to be addressed by Wali. Later it turned out to be a fundraiser,” he recalls. Syed donated a handsome amount, leaving everyone impressed with his generosity. Subsequently, he joined the ANP in 2002 and was made president of the party’s Sindh chapter a year later. Since then nobody could replace him.
Syed is vocal and media-savvy. He loves to see himself on the TV screen and seldom refuses interview requests from our oh-so-many news channels. “This is a source of popularity,” he quips smiling slyly. Syed has an elaborate media section at his mansion – but no one to look after. “I don’t receive a single penny from the party’s central leadership. This whole set-up you see here is self-financed,” he says pointing to the media section, complete with 20-odd TV sets, video recorders, etc.
As a politician, Syed is vocal and squeamish. Many a time, his naiveté earned him jeers and taunts from political rivals. “Recently, a politician poked fun at me on a live TV show, saying that I’m illiterate. Though I was hurt, but kept quiet because I didn’t want violence in the city,” Syed says.
The ANP has borne the brunt of Taliban militancy. It has lost scores of activists and cadres in Taliban attacks. The party, which had two lawmakers in the previous Sindh Assembly, has none in the incumbent. Syed blames the Taliban for his party’s lackluster performance in the 2013 elections. “We were not allowed to campaign. Our activists and candidates were targeted, our election offices bombed and we were denied a level-playing field,” he says.
Syed believes the Taliban, and not political rivals, are responsible for the virtual death of his party in Karachi. “Nobody has done more damage to the ANP than the Taliban," he says. “And I’m at loss to understand why they are targeting a party that represents the Pashtun in this city.”
On Karachi and ‘namaloom afraad’
A surgical operation has been going on in Karachi since 2014. Dozens of Taliban militants have been killed in gunfights with police and Rangers, though these encounters have been called into question by rights campaigners and media persons. But Syed doesn’t think any innocent Pashtun has been killed. “I can vouch for the veracity of police claims that all those killed in encounters were 101% Taliban,”he says.
Syed completely supports the operation and wants it to continue till the last terrorist is eliminated from the city. Syed is also all praise for army chief General Raheel Sharif. “He means business. He is committed to eradicating terrorism from Pakistan. And we all must support him.”
On General Raheel Sharif and military operationss
The ANP is a shadow of its former self in Karachi. And political analysts believe the party has ceded ground to Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in the Pashtun-dominated areas of the city. Syed, however, doesn’t agree. “Who says the ANP’s presence in Karachi is lackadaisical? It has resurrected – with renewed vigour and enthusiasm. Give my party a level-playing field and see how it bounces back,” Syed says in a tone belying his words.
Syed says the Pashtuns in Karachi are not a threat to any other community. “We have no clash of economic interests with anyone. Pashtuns are security guards, they are drivers, they are petty day labourers, they don’t have political ambitions in this city,” he says. “They want to earn a living for their families and that is all they want.”
On Pashtuns and Urdu speaking people