The former MQM in 2021

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

IT is not possible to view politics in Karachi without factoring in the Mohajir constituency’s voting strength. And as Karachi was once Pakistan’s capital; was and still is Sindh’s capital; a port that didn’t become another Hong Kong, and is almost too strategically located for its own comfort, all this gives its particularized constituency an inalienable national relevance – apart from the fact that it opted for Pakistan in 1947 with its feet. From its founding day the country ‘owes’ them the security of the nationality they came for. Or at least as much as any and every citizen is owed by the state regardless of ethnicity and creed and not in consequence of any preferred badge. 

            Initially civil administrative experience – and a domination of that sector – were associated with the Mohajir. That vital early steering and navigation was a gift from the educated Mohajir to the newborn state. It also allowed them to form a ‘mandarin’ class that generated feelings of exclusivity and competitive resentment among challenged ‘sons of the soil’ – be it desert, fertile, rocky!

The Subcontinent is the home of many languages rich in tradition and cultural expression. The prime language of the Mohajir was Urdu which had also evolved as a lingua franca in the British-ruled subcontinent where English was the official language. Cosmopolitan Karachi also boasted Guja

rati, a legacy from the Parsis and Guajrat itself, with which Sindh had been linked (and later de-linked) by the British. Besides their former master’s language English, retained for its existent practical utility, Bengali and Urdu were intended officially to serve as co-languages in either wing of the new State. But English served the government’s functional purposes, and Urdu and Bengali were kept waiting in the wings.  Urdu was for many west Pakistanis but one among several widely spoken languages; they admitted to no rationale for its preferment: The case was different in East Pakistan.

            In the nineteen-sixties President Ayub opted to shift the Republic’s capital from Karachi to a new city to be constructed in the vicinity of the Margalla hills. It located the Central government ‘more centrally’, and in close proximity to the GHQ, his home away from home. A certain distancing of the seat of government from the enticing allure of trade, commerce and industrial wealth was also cited as wise.  The move actually enhanced the open relaxed nature of life in Karachi, and the city’s economic relevance was unaffected. But during Ayub’s rule the Mohajir in Karachi began to transform into a polarizing politically alienated persona in the wake of riot and arson in a rampaging victory march through the predominantly Mohajir-populated Golimar which had voted for Miss Jinnah not General Ayub.

The outright acknowledgment of conflicting ethnicities emerged in ZAB’s time. Language had become a provincially contentious issue in post-Bangladesh truncated Pakistan. In Mumtaz Bhutto’s tenure as Sindh’s CM the bloody ‘language riots’; the prolongation of the ‘quota’ concession cemented Mohajir grievances: Were they to be handicapped for being meritorious?

Post the July 1977 coup when General Zia sought to curtail the PPP he had an ecosystem waiting in Mohajir-Sindhi tensions – to say nothing of fundamentalist ferment within the PNA. Today urban/rural distinctions; experiments with the mayoral system and sundry tweaks in local government structuring are givens in national-provincial political contest. They are tools of competing power politics for parties in all of Pakistan, not just the MQM and PPP. Accusations of gerrymandering and census-fudging ping-pong depending on who holds the reins and what is being sought.

            If the MQM was conceived as General Zia’s sadly able team’s changeling, Altaf Hussain, the student-leader promoted into off-campus adult politicking, attained democratic autonomy for his party and fashioned its monolithic votebank. This remarkable achievement was the fruit of genuine commitment, organizational skill and sustained service within his community. The Mohajir had always had a distinctive identity: Altaf Hussain — who was at first as deeply loved as he was later feared — gave it a voice. Unfortunately for the MQM, he showed equal talent in fanning an extremist fringe, thus adding another much uglier kind of strength to his party. The iron grip in which Altaf bhai came to hold Sindh’s cities was relentless. The justification was a preceding militancy and violence displayed by elements in other parties, notably the harassed PPP.  Karachi can never forget intra-party street conflict which was at horrendous heights in Jam Sadiq’s time. General Babar’s campaign in Benazir Bhutto’s first tenure in the nineties established some reversion of normal civic activity but at the cost of enhancing political estrangement. There were some undeniable excesses in military operations to contain the delinquent MQM, ploys featuring the appearance and non-appearance of Jinnahpur maps, to say nothing of charges of separatism.

A valid perception of undue general punishment served to increase the political utility of the MQM for other mainstream political rivals in and out of mufti. It became a kingmaker of sorts, or a definitive balancer. Kosher factions emerged; some of its outlaws and exiles resurfaced as required or permitted.  General Musharraf’s moves to enlist the Mohajir votebank rehabilitated a Mohajir’s party concept and some of the original party’s unsmirched or no longer entirely mistrusted or disgraced luminaries came into political circulation.

But too many capricious moves along with lapse and bias in political accountability through decades of alternating civil and military democracy have induced a pervasive vitiating political apathy and cynicism in the non-partisan sections of the national electorate.  In the face of this general systemic challenge where does the MQM stand now?

The term MQM remains a generic rubric for Mohajir ethnicity. But the positive initial founding premise and political functionality of the former MQM has not been expropriated or fully absorbed by offshoots. Various factions and professedly new setups which tried to expand separate manifests to gain the mainstream have merely fragmental electoral standing. The Mohjir votebank is no longer the monolith of yore. The constituency deplores Altaf bhai’s later politics and rhetoric; but they also question the kind of facile dissociative re-entry that for instance the PSP personifies. Thus, Amir Khan’s faction has a substance that suffers precisely because Amir Khan himself was once among those who could not be crossed. And Farooq Sattar’s colorless faction neither affirms or rejects. Onlookers return to emphasizing the level of political understanding and maturity that characterizes the constituency.

They were apparently more inclined to giving the brand new challenger to the two-party mainstream stranglehold, Imran Khan’s PTI, a vote in 2018 than to the old MQM’s turncoats, or extremists with records of violence, or other likeable but ineffectual heirs hoping to encash and convert the currency of Altaf bhai’s votebank which he himself had rendered counterfeit.

However, the subsequent blathering of PTI’s MNAs and MPAs regarding Karachi’s problems and mismanaged assets, popular economic anguish, and other crucial national electoral issues, make it unlikely the PTI will hold its own next time round in urban Sindh, let alone enlarge its space, with or without EVMs and expats. Both lack grassroots and local street authentication – their realities are virtual and offshore. Karachi’s and much of urban Sindh’s Mohajir vote is latent. Every contender eyes it.

Perhaps the decisive principle in any future election is how much faith the electorate places in a party’s and a candidate’s ability to reinvent as well as deliver. The return of Dr Ishratul-Ebad, an obligingly conciliatory (but not infirm) former MQM governor of Sindh, could be meaningful: Will it collect and solidify the Mohajir constituency? Is the erstwhile governor able to deliver what an erstwhile mayor couldn’t? Wouldn’t? And to whom? Questions abound.

Pakistan’s electorate lives with democratic controversies but is seldom fully apprised as to what originates or constitutes them. The appointment, non-appointment, disappointments, regarding new shoes or new feet for the DG ISI’s post is an alarmingly reprehensible case in point. We live with the fallout without quite knowing when why what is being detonated: Let alone the former MQM does any party’s worker or supporter really know where his party means to tread?