Re-configuring the MQM

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By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

guest-contributorOn August 22 the MQM’s almost week-old peaceful rather low-key ‘fast-unto-death’ outside Karachi’s Press Club erupted into obedient frenzy at the urging of its remote-controlling leader, himself safely enshrined in London. That sacred cow of democracy, the media, had the premises of two big-time TV houses—- located a virtual stone’s throw away—- stormed: live.

The Press Club is at once at the commercial, official, industrial and historic heart of Karachi. Sticks and stones breaking bones; baton charges; arson: The impact of the vicious unruly mob was instantly apparent—- panicking people thronging the markets, and obstructing hordes heading home from work. The resultant traffic jam was rapid and extensive. LEAs heading to the rescue were also caught in it. More than a handful badly injured; one dead; another dying: Probably the whole of Pakistan’s TV audience witnessed the rampage vicariously and read tickers of the concern being voiced by the President; PM; military top brass and prominent politicians. The CM, the DG Rangers, officials and functionaries visited the trouble-spot. The interior minister intended phoning officialdom in London, where MQM’s Altaf Hussain has long been a British resident, turned citizen.

Admittedly it was big news; but in a Pakistan that daily digests doses of verbal vitriol or lethal violence, why should those hours of a fairly rapidly contained rampaging mob still grip and reverberate? There are many reasons.

For one thing, the MQM has a long grim history interwoven with narratives of ethnic discrimination, persecution and secessionist-sort threats. Extortion, torture, intimidation, coercion, militancy, fascistic tactics, “State” terror: It has been as much a perpetrator of these as a victim: Whether in, out of, or seeking power, avowedly democratic politicians and the parties they lead have wooed, denounced or allied against the MQM with consistent inconsistency.

Similarly, through somewhat more than the last three decades, sundry generals and agencies intermittently nurtured and protected what has evolved into the MQM we all know, and manipulated it variously to further their own political intent. The party has also frequently been cut to size by the military; purged and cleansed in the cause of decriminalizing politics. That last process having been endorsed or initiated by sundry incumbent elected governments as well, against whose sometimes tenuous majority the MQM was often juxtaposed. MQM luminaries have occasionally been murdered mysteriously, gone underground or fled; others resurfaced inexplicably and still others repositioned or reinstated. The oft rechristened party has also been factionalized more than once— but in vain: Altaf Hussain remained inimitably in charge. Till the 22nd.

What was different about the sloganeering on that day that made it so easy– in fact an imperative— for his party faithful to delink from Altaf Hussain? After all suspicions and allegations of “conspiring” (the significant diplomatic attention and grace he personally enjoys is well-remembered locally) to make Karachi into a too free port to fill the vacuum left when the British mandate on Hong Kong completed; the discovery of a defaced map to make a Jinnahpur are old hat. More recently and pertinently, Altaf Hussain’s statements internationally aired but most irksomely by the Indian Press; about regrettably having taken the Pakistan option, smack of venom and deviation from Pakistan’s Islamic Republic. The stance and observations naturally offend public sentiment and, possibly because they are comfortably far from reflecting it, the public attitude has been dismissive: Altaf Hussain’s rants and raves were recognized as such. But a crowd of followers shouting the precise opposite of Pakistan Zindabad on the streets of its largest city, and turning violent at his long-distance telephonic command was action not words— and the doings not of one sick leader but his supporters.

It was a pivotal moment bound to repercuss. The reorientations are yet to be established— not just within the MQM, but around it and regarding it.

Pakistan’s politically hardened public is waiting to see how those who have always played with and against the MQM through changing situations, plan to use this new one where Altaf Hussain himself has rendered himself definitively untenable. Hypotheses are linked to the matter of how much of the event was fortuitous.

Preoccupation as to whether the civil and the military are on the same page is innate in Pakistan politics. Much civil political space has already been ceded to the army command in the cause of the “war on terror”; and by parliamentary consensus it must be remembered, not just a bullied Nawaz Sharif. The government he leads presently has more problems managing relations with the parliamentary opposition and coping with hostile street politicking than with determining its equation with the military. Inter-party relations are further complicated by the variations in provincial and federal posture and rhetoric by parties forming provincial governments.

The PPP is under a degree of popular pressure in Sindh, where it has to live with its own rather incriminating record of present not just past governance. What a new Chief Minister actually signifies in terms of party management and administrative conduct remains guesswork. Certainly the PPP does not appear de-linked from Asif Zardari, and his son’s tabula rasa remains dully blank if unblemished. As for the PTI and JI, the anti-terrorist operation broke the MQM stranglehold on urban Sindh and so there is less cause to turn to them for political relief. The PSP could not prise away Altaf Hussain’s vote-bank. Will that change?

Opportunists could tip the scales, but in which direction and for whom?

The surge post the 22nd in demolishing the MQM’s illegally lodged and constructed party offices is in danger of seeming vindictive: Surely other parties also have broken municipal zoning codes or are misusing premises, position and perquisites. Demands are being made to ban the party or have MQM’s reps resign and hazard their chances afresh. Even so, the MQM’s Waseem Akhtar was finally sworn in as Karachi’s mayor on the 30th— and then headed back to jail. He faces grave charges many believe have validity. But many also believe in the validity of charges placed on the backburner in the context of Karachi’s peace, law and order that could be pursued with equal vigour against other politicos. Could the fate of Waseem Akhtar and the MQM itself become a quid pro quo?

The community care Altaf Hussain’s MQM provided deprived and under-privileged adherents may well have been no more than the godfather in the don; and his party’s superlatively efficient organizational cadres soon become a mafia they grew to dread rather than a shield that protected. But this one cannot deny today’s MQM: a cohesive, thinking, literate, emancipated vote bank– He may not have intended it; but Founder Altaf Hussain has at last given the party no longer his, the chance to retrieve its best element and valid direction.