August issue 2006
House of Cards
For the third time this year, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has charted a turbulent course for the precariously wobbly boat that is the Sindh government. After repeatedly airing grievances against the Sindh Chief Minister, Arbab Ghulam Rahim, the MQM finally upped the ante by tendering resignations of its ministers and advisors from the Sindh provincial and federal cabinets in late July. The move underlined not just the tussle of power between two political parties but again exposed the deep rooted rural-urban divide in Sindh — at least among its elected representatives.
The MQM resignations resulted in hastily convened meetings and frantic telephone calls to and from London, finally resulting in yet another compromise, but a long-term solution to the power-sharing problem in Sindh remains a distant dream.
While the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) leaders accuse the MQM of resorting to arm-twisting tactics to get maximum concessions and an increased share of power, the MQM maintains that its ministers are not being allowed to serve the people, especially in the two biggest cities of Sindh: Karachi and Hyderabad.
“We find it ironic that the chief ministers of other provinces, especially that of the Punjab, remain committed to the development of their cities and provincial capitals,” said one senior MQM lawmaker. “But in Sindh, the chief minister, in fact, hampers and blocks all major development plans because of short-term political interests or parochial rural thinking.”
The MQM, which for the first time in its history has been dominating the Sindh provincial government since the party decided to support President Pervez Musharraf’s government, is not just striving to consolidate its position in the corridors of power, but also to make inroads into the rural areas.
The establishment, which allegedly manipulated the 2002 general elections to push former premier Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) out of power in her home province, seems to have few options, but to keep the MQM in its fold.
The MQM remains a senior partner in Sindh, where a coalition was cobbled together with the help of PPP dissidents, Sindh Democratic Alliance, all the factions of PML, including the Functional group of Pir Pagara and some independent MPs.
However, instead of the 40-60 formula (40 per cent share in governance to the parties belonging to the urban areas and 60 per cent to those belonging to the rural areas), which is usually adopted in a power-share in the Sindh government, the MQM was offered a 50 per cent share.
The MQM also nominated its candidate for the post of Sindh governor and won a number of important portfolios in the cabinet: finance and cooperatives, home and coordination, planning and development, labour, transport, industries and commerce, health, sports and youth affairs, information and archives, local government and spatial development, excise and taxation and environment and alternate energy. The MQM also controls a few ministries in the federal setup, including the important portfolio of communication and works.
Apparently the MQM was given a 50 per cent share in the provincial government, but in fact ruled the roost when the inexperienced Ali Mohammed Mahar, a political non-entity, was nominated, ostensibly by the then ISI chief General Ihtisham Zamir, as Sindh chief minister.
The MQM not only disallowed any kind of interference by anyone, including the chief minister, in the affairs of their assigned ministries, but they also continued to interfere in the ministries and constituencies of the Sindh government’s other political partners.
In some cases, when the then chief minister recommended postings in the MQM-run ministries, some of the MQM’s ministers tore up the letters written from the chief minister and disregarded the recommendations. When Ali Mohammed Mahar was removed because of his incompetence and replaced by Arbab Ghulam Rahim in June 2004, the MQM tried their level best to keep him under pressure too. In one of the earliest cabinet meetings, Rahim’s request to maintain decorum was met with an outburst from M. A. Jalil, who was serving as an advisor to the chief minister for excise and taxation. “You have come an hour late and now you are talking to us about decorum,” he reportedly told Rahim and left the meeting. MQM members took a stand on the issue and threatened to boycott future cabinet meetings if Rahim did not apologise personally to Jalil. Rahim is said to have obliged them by going to Jalil’s house and apologising.
However, Rahim managed to strengthen his grip on power in the next few months and began showing his “teeth” to MQM members by questioning some of their decisions.
Minor bickering and differences prevailed, with Rahim continuing to resist the MQM’s pressure. The tussle was brought into the public eye, however, when Karachi nazim, Syed Mustafa Kamal, ordered the bulldozing of some villages in the city. The Sindh chief minister personally visited one of these villages and ordered a stop to these demolitions. He also publicly criticised Kamal and the MQM city government for the destruction of villages settled years ago. “I was misinformed and was briefed that they are removing encroachments. I was never told that they are demolishing centuries-old villages,” the Sindh chief minister said and announced an inquiry into the matter.
Meanwhile, Syed Mustafa Kamal defended his actions saying, “What we dismantled was the precious land of Karachi and our actions were fully justified.” He also said that the message must be conveyed to land-grabbers that they cannot encroach on any piece of land in Karachi. Insiders say the Sindh chief minister opposed the move because he had received reports that the MQM wanted to accommodate their own men by removing these villagers.
Arbab Rahim was particularly upset with the fact that the MQM members had earlier removed some 200 dwellers of Yousuf Shah Goth in Sector 7B of North Karachi, who had been living there for years after they were allotted these lands on lease under the “Goth Abad Scheme” set up by the PPP government during their second stint in power. These villagers, mainly labourers and factory workers, were removed supposedly because the MQM wished to allot these plots to families of “party martyrs” or those families who had lost their youth in shootouts when the army launched the clean-up operation in Karachi.
MQM sources maintain that control of land in Karachi was a major bone of contention between the two sides. “Encroachments are a big problem in Karachi, but our hands are literally tied,” said one MQM official. “If we remove encroachments, we do not have land to relocate the affected people. It is under the control of the chief minister.”
He said that the cost of establishing industry or business was very high in Karachi because of the unavailability of cheap land to local or foreign investors and multinational companies. “Karachi is unable to exploit its massive business and industrial potential because of the unsympathetic chief minister. We should not forget that development and investment in Karachi means development and investment in the country, which will help the economy to grow faster.”
Rahim also refused to sign some of the summaries and projects proposed by the MQM ministers, which included the transfers and postings of some of their nominees. These differences were partially settled after Islamabad intervened, first in March and again in May, and asked both the chief minister as well as MQM members not to settle their scores publicly and to take each other into confidence before making any major decisions.
According to sources, when Musharraf visited Karachi in late July, he did not attend some of the functions organised by the MQM. Instead, he chaired a meeting of the PML members in which he announced that Rahim would remain chief minister till the elections next year. “He is the commander and you all have to follow him,” Musharraf told PML (Q) members, warning them to remain quiet.
Allegedly, when Musharraf went to the Governor’s House the next morning for a meeting pertaining to issues of development and law and order, none of the MQM ministers showed up. The Sindh Governor told the President that the MQM was very upset and that in a party meeting the previous night they had decided to tender their resignations.
Ishrat-ul-Ibad explained the reasons behind this decision to Musharraf. He detailed the problems that the Sindh chief minister had been creating for the MQM. Ibad then laid the MQM’s demands on the table: Chief Minister Rahim must be sacked and replaced with one of the MQM’s three nominees: Syed Murad Ali Shah, Papu Shah or Imtiaz Sheikh.
MQM sources say they would prefer a chief minister with an urban background who would be committed to the overall development of the province and who would facilitate bridging the gap between rural and urban areas.
According to insiders privy to the meetings, Musharraf was stunned by the move and told Dr Ibad that a changing of the “guard in Sindh” at this stage would create further problems for him, and offered his help to iron out differences between the MQM and Rahim. However, soon after Musharraf left Karachi and arrived in Islamabad, the MQM members announced the decision to tender their resignations. They said they would not withdraw from their stance unless their demands were met.
Insiders say that the situation was complicated further when Musharraf’s trouble-shooter, Tariq Aziz, called MQM supremo Altaf Hussain in London and reminded him of what Musharraf had done for the MQM in the past few years. “The MQM was in a trench and we brought you back to the mainstream. If you do not mind your attitude, we can throw you back into the trench,” Aziz was quoted by a source as having told Altaf Hussain during the conversation.
The MQM took offence to what they called the “attitude” of the president’s man and expanded their demands to include the removal of Tariq Aziz as well.
With his shaky political house on the verge of crumbling, Musharraf contacted Altaf Hussain himself. The general’s personal intervention worked. After the two spoke, the MQM announced the withdrawal of their resignations, saying that General Musharraf was kept in the dark by “certain interest groups” who want to create a gulf between him and the MQM.
Meanwhile, the Sindh chief minister, also referred to as “Laloo Parsad” because of his propensity for “obnoxious” remarks, was asked to keep mum till the differences were resolved. However, in a meeting, he dramatically remarked that, “One day of life as a lion is better than 100 years of life as a jackal.” The Sindh government’s boat sprang another leak, as the MQM decided to boycott negotiations once again, objecting to the Sindh chief’s remarks.
General Musharraf’s men then openly accused the MQM of blackmail, and in fact, one of Musharraf’s men, Dr Sher Afghan Niazi, even accused Housing Minister Safwanullah, an MQM nominee, of taking bribes to allot official residences to government employees.
General Musharraf also took serious notice of the MQM’s backing out of the meeting and summoned the Sindh governor to Islamabad. Sources say General Musharraf informed Ibad of some of the options the federal government was considering in case of the MQM’s resignation, which include imposing Governor’s rule in Sindh.
Meanwhile, the MQM finally announced that it would withdraw its resignations and negotiate with the government over some of the differences they were having with the Sindh chief minister.
One of the major points of difference was the ban imposed on the teachers’ unions and associations in Sindh without taking the MQM into confidence. Sources say the MQM wanted the Sindh government to lift the ban because the teachers union had been instrumental in securing them a victory in the elections. These teachers, working under the provincial government, are the major work force deputed by the Election Commission to conduct elections in the country. Some suggest that the MQM had been manipulating elections through the teachers’ unions. Consequently, wiping them out would be disastrous for the party’s future political fortunes. But Rahim insisted that these unions in Sindh had destroyed the education system and there is no way they would be allowed to function. The MQM maintained that even if Rahim took this decision in the larger interests of the province, they should have been consulted before this important decision. As tensions grew, the MQM demanded that the federal government not only lift the ban but also hand the portfolio of the provincial education department to the MQM.
Other differences between the MQM and Rahim include the defiance of the Inspector General police, Sindh. MQM insiders say that the present IG had been opposing some of the postings they have initiated and they now want him to be replaced by Asad Ashraf Malik.
The MQM has also sought assurances from the federal government that the Sindh chief minister would promptly approve all the summaries presented by MQM ministers without making any changes. One of the summaries that the chief minister has been holding pertains to the issuance of the notification to form the city government in Hyderabad, where the MQM has its nominee as nazim.
Insiders say other summaries that the MQM has proposed include handing over vacant land, totaling about 165,000 acres, including that in scheme 33, to the Karachi city government. The MQM also want Malir Development Authority to come under the city government, but the chief minister had refused to approve these summaries. In Hyderabad, the MQM’s nazim has suggested that nearly 12,000 acres of land in Ganju Takar, near the Zeal Pak cement factory, be handed over to the city government. Apparently, the chief minister showed some of these files to President Musharraf, including those summaries in which the MQM wanted land allotted to their favorites. “If I sign these summaries, I can go to the jail,” he is believed to have told the President.
According to sources, another bone of contention between the MQM and Arbab Rahim is the latter’s refusal to sign a MQM summary for the change of a cadre of about 8,000 Sindh government employees of 5-18 grade belonging to the MQM and posting them to the revenue, excise and taxation department.
Inside sources said that the MQM has also demanded a 70 per cent quota in the police department and a 50 per cent quota in other government jobs, including the education department. The Sindh chief minister has publicly opposed these demands, saying that he would appoint people only on merit. The MQM alleges that Rahim will appoint his own men based on his own system of “merit” instead.
The MQM has also objected to the chief minister’s intervention in the departments of MQM ministers. For example, the MQM wants the most minor of government appointments anywhere in the province to be brought to the notice of provincial home minister, Rauf Siddiqi. Arbab Rahim insists that the MQM is authorised to order transfers and postings in Karachi only and they will not be allowed to monitor these small-time transfers and postings in the interior of Sindh. He maintains that the members of his ruling coalition have to look after the interests of their own constituents.
The Sindh chief minister has also accused the MQM of interfering in the constituencies of his colleagues. Rahim’s close aides say that on the one hand the MQM went from Karachi to Khairpur, the constituency of Pir Pagara, who is one of the important components of the Sindh government, to hold a Jashan-e-Lateef (a musical show), but when PML(Q) activists went door-to-door to conduct a membership drive in Lateefabad in Hyderabad, the MQM took offence and fired at the house of PML(Q) members who took part in the membership drive.
Finally, insiders say that the MQM doesn’t trust Rahim and suspect that the way he is operating could jeopardise the party’s interests in the coming elections. At the moment, the MQM has a strength of 48 members in the provincial assembly and they have won some seats from the interior of Sindh. The MQM fear that if allowed to continue operating in this fashion, Rahim could compromise MQM seats in the interior as happened when the MQM sought election of their nominee as nazim of Tando Allahyar district. Rahim opposed this move and instead had his own party’s man elected as nazim.
So, is there a way of thrashing out a rapprochement between the two warring coalition partners? Not really, is the general view. Even if the MQM chooses to sit down at the negotiating table and eventually buckles under the pressure from Islamabad, the kind of distrust that now exists between them and the Sindh chief minister is unlikely to dissipate easily. “Their relationship is literally like a volcano that can erupt with the slightest disturbance,” says a political observer.
Unfortunately for Rahim, his problems do not lie solely with the MQM. He also faces a revolt from within his own party, which is strengthening the MQM’s hand and is likely to help them in ousting Rahim in the coming months.