March Issue 2015
Cover Story: Is the Party Over?
2015 – and once again the MQM finds itself in the crosshairs: the smoke from the Baldia factory fire still lingers, but provides no cover. Charges of arson fly fast and furious against the MQM. And whatever the truth of the matter, the allegations of attempted extortion by party cadres and the violent response by them when their demands are not met – as the authorities investigating the Baldia tragedy maintain was the case – are only too plausible given the reputation the party has garnered itself as urban Sindh’s extortion and elimination mafia.
And then there are the charges against MQM supremo Altaf Hussain by British authorities for alleged crimes in the UK. The charges include complicity in murder and money-laundering.
All this against the backdrop of the ‘Great Leader,’ increasingly seeming to have completely lost the plot – consider his wild ramblings, hysterical outbursts, verbal attacks against friends and foes alike, and U-turns on just about everything, including the party line.
Yes, the MQM still manages to engender fear in those on its wrong side. Yes, the culture of fear still earns it sizeable and regular bhatta (which the party dubs “donations”), manifest in the increasingly upwardly mobile lifestyle of local MQM leaders – and of their Quaid. And yes, assorted political parties often have to tango with MQM leaders, when they need MQM numbers to bolster their own seats or stances. But the great monolith of the ’80s no longer exists. That past is another party.
Yet, the party’s not quite over. And Altaf Hussain remains firmly entrenched as its godfather.
Whenever he gets on the telephone for a public address from London, for example, the first-tier stalwarts of his party here in Pakistan spring to attention and gird their loins. They listen carefully to each and every word uttered by their Quaid – never mind that they do so with bated breath, not knowing when there will be a surprise announcement, or yet another off-the-cuff, over-the-top remark.
The once fiery young speaker of the late ’70s and ’80s, still possesses the ability to mesmerise his die-hard followers, even as he approaches his 63rd birthday in September. But while his words may still resonate among the MQM’s rank-and-file, lately Hussain’s telephonic speeches have started to test more and more the fire-fighting abilities of the local leadership: rather than setting the political agenda or mobilising public opinion, local MQM leaders increasingly find themselves on the defensive, scrambling to cover up a gaffe by Hussain.
Sometimes, Hussain’s emotional outbursts are directed against select MQM lawmakers and office-bearers, whom he accuses of corruption, inefficiency in running the party’s organisational affairs and indifference toward the plight of the people. At other times he targets political rivals and elusive MQM enemies within the ranks of the “leviathan civil and military establishment.” He also routinely takes bold positions on assorted issues which conventional wisdom would deem ‘politically incorrect.’ But three decades later, the maverick MQM leader still seems to get away with everything, creating little more than a few ripples. This despite his radical demands and stances, ranging from the imposition of martial law and emergency in the country to that of uprooting the entire political system, raising tricky questions about current religious and historical narratives and heaping ridicule on rivals that belong to mainstream religious and political parties and even to banned extremist groups.
Twenty years down the road, despite his absence from his ideological constituency, comprising among others, a generation that hasn’t even set eyes on him in the flesh, Hussain is seldom found missing from the front-pages of newspapers or from local television news bulletins.
One may love him or hate him for his various politically correct or incorrect positions, but the MQM leader clearly cannot be ignored.
Meanwhile, each time Hussain opens up another can of worms, it is mostly the local MQM leadership which is left to handle the situation for better or worse. In some rare cases though, Hussain himself backtracks on his statements to calm temperatures when matters spin out of control.
The recent nasty war of words between the MQM and the PTI over the below-the-belt remarks of Hussain against Imran Khan’s party information secretary, Shireen Mazari, and women supporters, is one prime example of political bickering that was entirely avoidable if better sense had prevailed.
In the larger scheme of national politics, the PTI-MQM row should not have been more than a minor sideshow. Yet, it dominated the national media for days at the cost of genuine challenges faced by the country, including the spectre of terrorism and extremism.
The PTI and the MQM halted their highly sensational mudslinging match – which also saw Imran Khan making some highly personalised comments against Altaf Hussain – only after the MQM leader tendered an apology.
It was not just Imran Khan and the PTI that became the target of Altaf Hussain’s unsavoury remarks. The MQM supreme leader also castigated the law-enforcement agencies, including the country’s premier Inter-Services Intelligence. However, in this case too, Hussain quickly backed down from his position.
The MQM leader’s apologies and the damage-control measures employed by his lieutenants may have cooled the heightened political temperatures for the time being, but MQM-watchers are left befuddled by the party leader’s twists and turns in day-to-day politics. The party line often swings from one extreme to another: from being the most allied ally of the military establishment on key policy issues, including its unstinting support for Operation Zarb-e-Azb and the establishment of military courts on one hand, to being a bitter critic of the direction of the Karachi Operation on the other. Unsurprisingly then, the MQM’s local leadership usually walks a tightrope.
There are numerous questions about the future of this urban-based party, both at the organisational level and its overall role in national politics, including relations with the key movers and shakers in Pakistan’s power structure.
To begin with, how should one view the growing dissatisfaction of Hussain towards his own local leadership? Is it a sign of fissures within the MQM?
After all, he dissolved the MQM’s coordination committee four times during the past one-and-a-half-years, and that too under full media glare.
On each occasion, Altaf Hussain minced no words while criticising the party’s key office bearers for hiding facts about their performance, patronising corruption, especially in regard to the land-grabbing mafia, and for their overall apathy towards the problems of their respective constituencies.
As to how his party leaders see the MQM’s current situation, a senior MQM leader, requesting anonymity, said, “In one way it is unfortunate that Altaf bhai asks for public accountability. It provides our rivals an opportunity to jeer at us… but in another it is also a healthy sign. It makes us stand apart from the other conventional political parties which do not have any accountability process. Everyone can be held accountable in the MQM.”
The manner in which Altaf Hussain dissolves and reconstitutes the coordination and other committees or nominates and removes their key members underlines his continuing iron-grip over party affairs – even from thousands of miles away. But the way many of the same old faces manage to insinuate themselves into the folds of the MQM’s top organisational forums also demonstrates Altaf Hussain’s limited choices.
Another MQM leader, who also did not want to be quoted, said that from the first tier leadership down, office bearers at various levels, and the party’s lawmakers, still all draw their legitimacy and powers to act from Altaf Hussain.
“He is the one who makes them heroes or zeros,” he said. “Our workers are only attached to him. And Altaf bhai makes it a point to stay directly in touch with each one of them, from the sector to the zone and even the unit level, even taking an interest in their personal well-being.”
The personality cult and demi-god like status of Altaf Hussain among workers and supporters keep the party’s office bearers and lawmakers on a tight leash. In fact, they compete with one another to remain on ‘bhai’s’ right side.
And the party’s still sizeable support among Sindh’s urban public is undeniable. According to Wasay Jalil, a senior MQM leader, 10, 20 or maybe even 100 or 200 people can be brought to rallies by force. “But here we are talking about tens of thousands of people who assemble at our rallies on a few hours or a day’s notice. This show of strength cannot be orchestrated by the use of force as many of our opponents want the world to believe.
“Altaf Hussain is the founding leader of our party; he is our nucleus and ideologue. The rest of the party forums, including the coordination committee, are under him.”
Indeed, Hussain has no person holding the number two position within party ranks. Those old guards – such as Azeem Ahmed Tariq and Imran Farooq – who once were tipped as his heirs, are now gone.
As long as Hussain holds the fort, there appears little question of any organised dissent within the party, as the mass of MQM workers and supporters only follow him – even the young workers who have never directly met or seen him.
The one major split, which jolted the MQM, occurred way back in the early 1990s. And that too, was made possible with the active support of intelligence agencies, which brought various disgruntled elements within the MQM under one umbrella to form the Haqiqi faction. The mainstream MQM was pushed against the wall as a result of the double blow of the Karachi Operation of 1992 and the emergence of the establishment-backed Haqiqi. Nevertheless, it survived and managed to bounce back.
The tussle to regain its turf resulted in unprecedented inter-party bloodletting on the streets of Karachi. That is now a dark chapter of its history. But by hook or by crook, the MQM managed to get back into the saddle. Former military ruler General (retired) Pervez Musharraf also gave the party a helping hand by enabling and encouraging it to rejoin the mainstream, in an attempt to bring normality to Pakistan’s largest city and the country’s main commercial, financial and business hub.
After the early 1990s split, the MQM managed, by-and-large, to keep its ranks intact. Those who fell out of Hussain’s favour for various reasons – from the issues of poor performance and corruption to political differences – chose to bow out silently and in the majority of the cases quit politics altogether, rarely to be seen or heard of since then.
The one apparent exception was the senior MQM leader Imran Farooq, who allegedly tried to form his own faction of the MQM. He was murdered in London under mysterious circumstances on September 16, 2010. Top MQM leaders vehemently contest the claim that Farooq, once considered the party’s main ideologue and hardliner, ever wanted to part ways with Altaf Hussain and deny any involvement of their party in this murder.
However, investigations into Imran Farooq’s murder in the United Kingdom are being seen as make-or-break for Altaf Hussain’s career. The two key suspects allegedly involved in the case and wanted by Britain remain here, in Pakistan’s custody.
According to Sindh government sources, these suspects are being used by the security establishment to keep the MQM in line.
There are also money-laundering charges against Hussain in the United Kingdom. All these charges have, however, failed to erode Altaf Hussain’s control over the party or the politics of urban Sindh, even though they remain a tough test case.
Then there are other routine day-to-day pressures, which become weightier given the MQM’s typical style of politics in which perhaps no day is a normal day.
“Altaf bhai is under a lot of stress,” confides one MQM source. “He is a heart patient, and his blood sugar level is also high. He has also long been suffering from insomnia. He has to come up to the expectations of the party workers and supporters. And in this situation, certain issues can trigger an aggressive response from him,” he said while trying to justify his leader’s often controversial speeches and statements.
The swings in Altaf Hussain’s moods, his health condition and the fact that with each passing day he is not getting any younger, raises the question about his succession.
What happens if for health or any other reason Altaf Hussain is not on the scene to lead the MQM from the front for a short or an extended period?
Even for a relatively organised and well-knit party like the MQM, this remains a tricky question, which most of its leaders do not wish to discuss in the open.
Who will fill Altaf Hussain’s big boots? Will there be a collective leadership or is an individual waiting in the wings? Will the party be able to stay united if Altaf Hussain decides to hand over the reins to someone else? Recently, Hussain again expressed the desire to quit the party’s leadership, but following the “demands of workers” decided to stay on a few hours later.
In the coming months and years, the challenge of future leadership will be one key internal challenge which the MQM will face. On the external front too, the party is, increasingly, sailing in choppy waters.
The first big challenge remains of its image problem. Most of its critics and opponents still associate the party with organised violence and crime, including running a sophisticated extortion and land-encroachment racket.
Some of the senior police and security officials consider the MQM the biggest threat to peace in Karachi – perhaps even more deadly than the Taliban.
“The Taliban extremists have the capacity to stage some spectacular terrorist attacks in Karachi. But their threat is manageable as they do not enjoy public support,” said one senior police official, who played a key role in the ongoing Karachi Operation in its initial weeks and months. “But the MQM offers a unique challenge because of its deeply entrenched organisational structure in the city and roots among the local population. It can paralyse Karachi whenever it wants.”
Senior security officials accuse the MQM of maintaining an organised militant wing and blame it for most of the incidents of violence and killing in urban Sindh. They allege that MQM militants also serve as guns for hire. Little surprise, the MQM denies these charges.
Aminul Haq, a senior MQM leader, said that if anyone uses the MQM umbrella to commit crimes, the party immediately takes action and disassociates itself from him. “We never plead the case of any criminal… we only raise a hue and cry if a genuine political worker is falsely harassed or victimised.”
In fact, the MQM’s biggest complaint remains that the Karachi operation is largely directed towards its party supporters and workers, even though it is the one party which fully backs the authorities’ bid to restore peace in the megalopolis.
According to MQM figures, since January 2014 till the end of February 2015 it has lost more than 150 members in targeted and extra-judicial killings at the hands of political rivals and members of the law-enforcement agencies.
Additionally, since the onset of the Karachi Operation in September 2013, security personnel allegedly picked up at least 25 MQM workers, but MQM officials claim there was no paper trail to prove this arrest on paper. The tortured and bullet-riddled bodies of several of them were later found in various parts of the city.
A former MQM lawmaker, on condition of anonymity, said that none of the party workers offer resistance when arrested. “They go peacefully… and most are picked up from their homes. There is no exchange of gunfire. Had they been terrorists, would they have been so easily found in their homes?”
He said that Altaf Hussain’s bitter remarks against the establishment were the result of the extra-judicial killings of workers. “How can he stay silent over such issues? The establishment should get used to his tone. Why do they forget that we remain their most sincere strategic allies in the war against extremism?” he asked, reiterating his party’s anti-Taliban position and unconditional support to the armed forces in their fight against this grave internal threat faced by the country.
MQM officials maintain that certain political forces want to damage the spirit of Operation Zarb-e-Azb by trying to divert the Karachi Operation against the MQM. “Who is going to benefit if there is friction between the MQM and the law-enforcement agencies? Some myopic PPP leaders think that their party would gain…”
In the highly complex cloak and dagger game unfolding in Sindh, narrow, short-term political and financial interests are stoking friction at one level among various forces and institutions, which practically collaborate and jointly work together at another level.
The killings and arrests of MQM workers, many of whom are being described by the police as wanted in various heinous crimes, remain one key factor in souring its relations with the law- enforcement agencies.
The straining of ties is reflected in the way a joint investigation team (JIT) report about the 2012 Baldia garment factory inferno alleged that some senior MQM leaders and workers were responsible for the tragedy that claimed more than 250 lives. The report alleged that the factory was set ablaze because its owners refused to pay the so-called ‘protection money’ to certain MQM leaders.
The MQM has described the JIT report, based on the statement of one person, as a media trial, while Altaf Hussain has demanded that the army conduct any inquiry into this case. Independent analysts have also raised questions as to why the JIT report was revealed more than two years after the incident, and claim that the confessional statement of one person is unlikely to hold ground in any court of law.
But the report has proved too damaging for the MQM’s image and the charges made in it are too serious to be ignored. It requires a thorough inquiry so that those responsible for the tragedy can be brought to justice, regardless of their political affiliations.
A senior MQM leader believes that tensions with the mighty military establishment remain temporary and will be resolved soon. But in the mid to long run, the MQM’s relations with the law-enforcement agencies will largely depend on its ability to break clean from the criminals and militants it is alleged form a core group within the party.
Is the MQM willing to transform itself and reinvent its image? Will it be able to address the concerns of the security establishment?
As matters stand now, both internal rethinking within its leadership and external factors are trying to nudge the MQM in a new direction. But complete transformation is easier said than done. It will require not just a lot of patience and focus, but a mix of both soft and hard handling. Being a middle-class and urban-based party, the MQM can play a larger role in national politics, provided it can make the world believe that it has completely severed ties with militancy and crime. But until that happens, the fortunes of the MQM and its power base, Karachi, will continue on their roller coaster ride.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.
Becoming an MQM lawmaker is certainly not only about privileges, power and living in the fast lane. Perks aside, the party supremos and ‘embedded’ Hussain informers alike watch lawmakers a la an Orwellian Big Brother at every step. Lawmakers are supposed to adhere to a disciplinary code, fulfill their assigned duties and responsibilities and stay in touch with workers and supporters in their respective constituencies. Nabeel Gabol, who recently resigned from the National Assembly seat, hit the bulls-eye when he honestly confessed that he was “a misfit” in the MQM’s organisational structure and culture.
It was the PPP’s happy-go-lucky culture where Gabol had most of his political grooming. And the PPP, even in its best of days, was never known for being a disciplined and organised party.
But the MQM’s disciplinary code makes it mandatory for lawmakers – members of the national and provincial assemblies – to visit the party office in their respective constituencies for at least five days a week. And once at the office, they have to spend two to three hours listening to public grievances and meeting workers and residents of the area. Moreover, lawmakers also have to visit the party headquarters in Azizabad, Karachi once every week.
Members of the national and provincial assemblies are also supposed to be with workers and supporters in their moments of joy or sorrow – attending occasions such as weddings and funerals.
The other mainstream conventional political parties, dominated by the feudal and tribal lords or super-rich industrialists and businesspeople do not impose any such conditions on their elected members, many of whom are usually found in their constituencies only at the time of the elections.
Gabol joined the MQM after parting ways with the PPP ahead of the 2013 elections. Earlier, when he was a PPP MNA from Lyari, he was forced out of his traditional constituency by militants belonging to the ironically titled Lyari Aman Committee.
At that time, the committee, comprising notorious gangsters, was being supported by the then home minister Zulfikar Mirza and some other PPP stalwarts close to the former president Asif Ali Zardari. Gabol found himself being eased out of his political space with the PPP central command bent upon awarding Bilawal Bhutto Zardari a ticket for the National Assembly seat from Lyari.
Short of options and bitterly cornered by Lyari gangsters, Gabol opted for the MQM, which gave him its secure and prized NA 246 seat.
The constituency also comprised the Azizabad neighbourhood, where the MQM headquarters ‘Nine Zero’ is located.
According to MQM officials, Gabol was not able to come to the party offices for weeks, even months, due to personal reasons. “He was repeatedly asked to improve his performance… and as a result he opted to resign from the NA seat,” said a senior MQM leader. “We very much want him to stay in the party as he is also a member of our central executive council. In the past, a number of our key members have taken a backseat for personal reasons, but rejoined the mainstream once they resolved their issues.” However, he conceded that the signs indicate Gabol will part ways with the party. “We wish him good luck,” he said.
Gabol’s decision to quit the NA seat and the MQM has not been on a bitter note. MQM leaders have refrained from levelling any charges against him and Gabol has also not made any adverse remarks against the MQM. However, Gabol’s desertion is a symbolic blow for the MQM which is keen to have prominent personalities from other communities in its ranks to give the party a multi-ethnic image.
In 2002, it awarded the NA 246 ticket from Azizabad to Azizullah Brohi. But the party asked for his resignation within a year on charges of corruption and poor performance. In the by-elections on this seat, another Sindhi-speaking individual, Nisar Panhwar was awarded a ticket. In the 2008 elections, Panhawar was given a provincial assembly seat.
Gabol, who was unable to give time to his Azizabad constituency, maintains that he aims to win back his traditional seat from Lyari where fresh political space has been created as a result of the ongoing Karachi operation against criminals and terrorists.
The recent arrest of Uzair Jan Baloch in the UAE, the kingpin among Lyari gangsters, also favours Gabol.
The PPP, which once was the undisputed political force in Lyari, has seen its support base eroding because of gangsters. In the 2013 elections, gangsters forced the PPP leadership to accept their nominees from this area for the National and Sindh assembly seats.
Gabol, who apparently realised soon after joining the MQM that he is a misfit in this middle class party, is now likely to join a more conventional political force in the coming days. But so far he is keeping all options open – i.e. he could join the PML-N, the PPP or even the PTI. “The PTI is the second biggest party in Karachi, but I have not yet finalised my next move. I will not make any decision in haste,” Gabol told Newsline.
“My only aim is to serve the people and get myself elected from the constituency of Lyari from where my father and grandfather won elections. And in Lyari, though Zardari remains unpopular, people still love the Bhuttos.”
– Amir Zia
This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.
Amir Zia is a senior Pakistan-based journalist who has worked for leading international and national media organizations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV, and Newsline. He currently works for the Bol media group.