September Issue 2017
Life after ‘Bhai’
Muttahida Qaumi Movement Pakistan (MQM-P), the fourth largest political force in the country and the second largest in Sindh – in terms of its parliamentary representation – has got a new lifeline. The party, known for its political manoeuvering, voted for Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) prime ministerial candidate. In return, it was expecting to be given some political space and be allowed to open those offices in Karachi that were closed after Altaf Hussain’s seditious speech last year.* Additionally, a Rs 25 billion package for Karachi was announced by the federal government – a move that will help the MQM-P in improving the performance of its elected members in local government bodies.
The estimated population of Karachi, according to the provisional census figures, has sparked a debate, fuelling the decades-old narrative in the city of discrimination and injustice. As cultural critic, Ahmer Naqvi, describes it in one of his writings, “The word ziyaadti – injustice – came up, unprompted, in just about every interview, and it reflects the view that those based in Karachi are outside the system – a system that will always seek to attack and marginalise them.”
The figures, which run in stark contrast to the estimates of experts on Karachi and urbanisation, are a blessing in disguise for a party whose leadership had started questioning the veracity of the numbers in their initial responses.
The MQM-P has been going through a rough phase since 2013, when operations by law enforcement agencies crippled its powers, and decimated its organisational structure. The party, which was notorious for resorting to violence and agitational politics against the government, and for manipulating elections through its highly organised network across the city, faced a major blow last year when some of its former members joined hands to form the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), headed by Karachi’s former mayor, Mustafa Kamal.
Kamal’s return to Karachi resembled the return of Aamir Khan and Afaq Ahmed of the MQM-Haqiqi, who had been expelled from the party and chose to live abroad. They returned in the aftermath of the military action against the MQM in the early nineties. But unlike the two, Kamal neither rode an army jeep to capture MQM territories by force, nor did he confine himself to the politics of the Mohajirs. Instead, he came with a party name derived from the national anthem.
Slowly but surely, Kamal is expanding his sphere of influence. He has opened offices in almost all MQM strongholds. His narrative centres around the persona of Altaf Hussain. Kamal derides him and his politics, holding him responsible for ravaging the Urdu-speaking community, resorting to violence and killing party supporters and opponents alike in the last three decades. Kamal laments that Hussain has turned party workers into hardened criminals.
MQM supremo Hussain’s telephonic addresses, during all those years, resulted in adding to the woes of the party. The Lahore High Court banned his live broadcasts when he criticised and threatened security institutions in his speeches. He touched a new low on August 22 last year. In a fiery speech to party workers in the hunger strike camp outside Karachi Press Club, he raised anti-Pakistan slogans and incited an attack on the ARY News office.
The act was followed by the arrests of party officials, and registration of cases against them. In later developments, Dr Farooq Sattar and his close aides denounced the speech, and declared that they had parted ways with the party founder, and established the MQM-P, of which he became president. It then harnessed the support of its local government representatives – who belonged to the MQM – to successfully elect their district chairmen, vice chairmen, the mayor and deputy mayor.
The biggest challenge was the revamping of the party’s organisational structure, the system of units and sectors. Much of it was inherited from the mother party, whose office bearers enjoyed more unbridled power than the elected local bodies’ members. The organisation of the party had created an extraordinary personality cult around Hussain. The unit and sector incharges – directly linked to the London secretariat – were instruments whereby the party supremo asserted his authority on a range of matters, from settling issues to generating financial resources. This structure, however, had been badly damaged since 2013 in raids and arrests conducted by law enforcement agencies on the units and sector offices. Those who weren’t arrested went into hiding, while others were killed, allegedly, by the law enforcement agencies. Their bullet-riddled bodies surfaced in the city.
MQM-P alleges that most active party workers have been neutralised, while those who were arrested or in hiding were pressured into joining the PSP. Some are, allegedly, still sympathetic to the London faction. Recent arrests by law enforcement authorities have proven that there is some truth in the latter point. The target killers arrested for involvement in the killing of PSP members in Orangi Town, had links with the London faction.
The MQM-P asserted its control over the party by developing a new organisational structure, in sync with that of the local bodies, union councils, towns and districts. Now, elected members of local governments are at the heart of the organisation and can exercise greater control, and effectively perform their duties.
But the new approach has its share of disadvantages as well. The party ranks, especially those who have lost their influence at the lower levels, are still sympathetic towards the founder and the London faction. This acts as a constraint for them to perform at the local level.
In the words of a former MQM unit incharge from Baldia Town, “Some of the party members lament the sorry state of affairs, as they can no longer use the party name to prevent the excesses committed by the police.” In fact, now it is the police, not the MQM, he explains, that extort thousands of rupees a month from local stalls. Refusal results in anti-encroachment drives by relevant departments or demands for paying higher amounts than initially demanded by the police.
Faisal Subzwari, a member of the MQM-P’s coordination committee, is an ardent supporter of bringing about a transformation within the party’s organisational structure. According to him, it requires changing a particular mindset. He believes that assigning workers with the powers of office-bearers may be a short-term solution, but in the longer run it hampers party efforts to reform members.
In its bid to reorganise the party and revamp the whole support base, the MQM-P did successfully manage to regain the support of workers and voters, as can be seen in the recent by-election. Despite losing support and being unable to manipulate the electoral process as it has done in the past, it still managed to attract people to turn up at polling stations.
In its earlier years, it had been slain MQM leader Dr Imran Farooq, who had produced party literature, defined party discipline, and built a cult around the personality of Hussain. Despite this, he was suspected of treason and rubbed out.
The MQM-P holds a major part of the MQM’s support base and elected membership. Its attempt to break free of the cult of personality and reassert the significance of the organisation is visible in the non-confrontational approach of the party’s first tier leadership. In a recent bid to avoid a split of votes and supporters in the upcoming elections, the MQM-P reached out to the leadership of the PSP and the MQM-Haqiqi factions to come together and mark August 22 as the day of deliverance. There are reports of mediation between these factions for the last several months. Some members of business communities are said to be playing a crucial role in bringing them on the same page.
In contrast, the leadership of the London faction has gone wayward. Altaf Hussain held a meeting with the controversial US Congressman, Dana Rohrabacher, along with Baloch separatist leader, the Khan of Kalat, Mir Sulaiman Dawood. The move has irked the security institutions, and given rise to apprehensions among the supporters of the London faction that these acts could further put them in hot water with the law enforcement officials.
Ahmed Hammad, a Federal Urdu University student living in Saeedabad Baldia Town, summed it up well: “Since Bhai himself is sitting at a safe distance, he never hesitates to wreak havoc on us.”
With its newfound relevance, the MQM-P called an All Parties Conference (APC) after its first year of rechristening, to discuss issues of national security, corruption and powers of local governments, but received a cold shoulder from all parties except the breakaway MQM factions. In the end, it had to call off the APC.
But Iqbal Khursheed, a journalist at Dunya News and a keen observer of the city’s politics, says this move by the MQM-P’s rivals marks the first major victory for the MQM-P chief, Sattar.
“Sattar has, in a period of one year, managed to keep the party support intact,” explains Khursheed.“He stopped the defection of party lawmakers to the PSP, and it seems that he may bring the MQM factions together, on a joint forum, to avoid infighting – as was observed in a recent clash between the PSP and the MQM-P workers last week – and a split of votes in the upcoming elections. The call for an APC and subsequent refusal of the MQM’s political rivals to join them has consolidated their position,” he continues. In the past, a binary of the ‘MQM vs. all’ has benefited the former. This was witnessed in the 2015 local government elections, when Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), joined hands against the MQM and focused their campaign more on deriding the MQM than on articulating their plans. The MQM won with a thumping majority. The PPP, which is viewed unfavourably by Karachiites due to its dismal performance, may not pose a threat to the MQM-P.
If the MQM-P keeps itself relevant at the national level, manages to perform at the local bodies level, is able to manipulate the discourse of ziyaadti (injustice) amongst its supporters, and does not face a split of votes because of the PSP, it could keep the mantle of being the sole representative of Karachi.
*Senior members of law enforcement agencies, however, were opposed to this step. Based on their recommendations, Prime Minister Abbasi informed the MQM leadership on September 1, 2017, that its offices would not be re-opened.
Ali Arqam main domain is Karachi: Its politics, security and law and order