MQM: Adrift in an Uncertain Sea
The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is in the eye of the storm yet again, this time for its latest battle for survival. Although this urban-based party has defied predictions of doom several times in the past, never before has it faced the kind of complex external and internal challenges that it does today. The party now teeters on uncharted territory in a high-stake political game of chess, forced to operate minus its hitherto omnipotent founding leader, Altaf Hussain. Now not just the unity and cohesion of the MQM, but also its style of politics — in fact,its very ethos — exist in a state of suspended disbelief.
Ironically, Hussain himself acted as the catalyst that pushed the MQM to the edge. Following his hysterical anti-Pakistan and anti-army tirade on August 22, the party had to choose: either you are with Pakistan, or you are with Hussain — ie State Enemy.
There have been internal revolts against Hussain in the past, but this is the first time in the MQM’s more than three decade-long history that the entire coordination committee and all the parliamentarians unanimously distanced themselves from his speech — at least publicly. And as the pressure mounted, both on the leader and on the party, the entire top brass of the MQM followed this distancing by ‘officially’ snapping ties with their supreme leader, who until just a few weeks ago had run the affairs of his party with an iron fist. The MQM’s Pakistan-based leadership removed Hussain’s name from their party’s constitution and flag, and the MQM Pakistan was the main mover of a resolution in the National Assembly on September 2 condemning the party founder’s controversial speech. The resolution was passed unanimously.
Since the now infamous address, not a single significant voice has emerged from within the party in defence of Hussain, barring a few tweets by London-based Wasay Jalil and Mustafa Azizabadi saying that Hussain and the MQM cannot be separated from one another.
However, none of the local MQM first or second tier leaders have attempted to justify his near-seditious diatribe. All one has heard in fact, is the crescendo of apologies from MQM leaders and parliamentarians, and only a few half-hearted claims that “mental stress and tension” were responsible for the party supremo’s “unpardonable” outburst.
Farooq Sattar emerged as the man of the moment as he immediately sprang into damage — control mode. Given the difficulty of the situation, in this he acquitted himself well, deftly manoeuvring the party stalwarts and workers away from Hussain without antagonising the latter’s die-hard loyalists or causing any major split in the ranks. Additionally, even while treading on this field of landmines, he had to pacify the establishment — standing at the other end of the spectrum.
In round one, the MQM’s political wing — the coordination committee and the lawmakers — categorically announced that henceforth they would operate independently without any dictation from the party’s London secretariat or its founder. Altaf Hussain, for his part, was also quick to concede power and endorse the MQM Pakistan’s decision. And apparently, the party’s organisational structure, ie. those in charge of its sectors and units — the real power base — have also fallen in line. But there are reportedly some voices of dissent simmering under the surface, which analysts say could result in further ruptures in the party.
The questions are: will this arrangement last? Can the transition to a post-Altaf Hussain MQM really be as simple as it appears on the surface? Are the MQM rank-and-file serious about abandoning their ‘Great Leader’ — a demigod to many? Or is this all a contrived illusion? Is the crackdown just a passing phase? And will Hussain strike back and regain the ground he conceded? Will the MQM Pakistan be able to maintain its support and vote bank until that comes to pass?
So far, the answers to these questions are literally anybody’s guess. The situation remains fluid, with each day adding a new twist to the ongoing tale, and even senior MQM insiders remain unsure about the shape of things to come.
But whatever shape the party may acquire, one thing remains constant: despite the ongoing crackdown, media trial and internal rifts and problems, the MQM’s domination over the electoral scene in urban Sindh remains as absolute as it has always been — as was clearly demonstrated by the elections of mayors and deputy mayors in Karachi, Hyderabad and Mirpurkhas in August.
According to MQM insiders, the fog misting the new avatar of the party will clear somewhat by mid-September. “By then we will have some idea about what course of action Altaf Hussain plans to take,” said a senior MQM official, requesting anonymity. “Similarly, we will also know who stands where in the first, second and third tier of leadership both here and abroad, as well as the general mood of the people.”
But while the MQM’s internal dynamics — which includes Hussain’s health — are certainly crucial in determining its future, multiple external factors will also have a huge bearing on the future of the party.
Had it been left just to the Sindh government of the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) or the federal government of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), a good or bad deal with the MQM would have been struck a long time ago — a deal that may not have ideally resolved the real issues in the province including the maintenance of the rule of law in urban Sindh, or the distribution of power and resources — but one that could have at least enforced a truce, even if an uneasy, unhappy one.
This time round however, the ball appears to lie in another court. The state appears resolute, focused on completely dismantling the MQM’s much-feared militant wing which ruled and terrified the city, with only a few brief intervals, since the mid-1980s. The Rangers-led operation — that started in September 2013 — had already put fetters on the MQM’s muscle power, amid allegations that the law-enforcers had been resorting to human rights abuses, forced disappearances and even extra-judicial murders to attain this end.
The MQM’s continuing protests against these rights abuses had little impact. The para-military Rangers pressed ahead with the operation, and in the course of their activities, the space for not just alleged MQM militants, but also for some PPP activists, began to shrink. While this obviously did not go down well with the two parties, the improved law and order situation in Karachi won the approval of the public. They remain, by and large, in favour of the Rangers operation.
And post the August 22 Hussain speech and its aftermath, the operation has taken on a new ferocity. The establishment’s target appears to be to slice and chop the MQM down to a size where it can no longer wield control over Pakistan’s largest city. And the recent turn of events has made the Rangers job easier. According to a senior police officer, the establishment considered the MQM a bigger law and order threat for the city than even the Taliban and other Islamic extremists, and thus feels it must be brought down. “The extremists have the potential to stage one spectacular terrorist strike, but they do not enjoy the support of the people,” said the officer. “The MQM has both, the muscle power and popular support. That makes it more lethal.”
And despite its pleas of innocence, the fact that the party has operated extortion, land encroachment and other criminal rackets, has long been an open secret. The recent surfacing of reports of the alleged ties of some top MQM leaders with the Indian intelligence agencies, and their involvement in anti-state activities has made the case against the MQM even more complex. Party voters, sympathisers and most MQM leaders, including parliamentarians, may be above suspicion, but some of its policy-makers, including Hussain himself, are being seen as having direct links with foreign agencies — even if proving these allegations in a court of law is a next-to-impossible task.
Hussain’s anti-Pakistan speech — the contents of which echoed again during his talk with MQM workers in the United States — upped the antÃ© of the Ranger’s operation manifold. Not just the MQM’s headquarters and all its other important buildings were sealed, but, in an unprecedented move, the security forces also started razing party offices all over Karachi.
Additionally, posters, photographs and banners carrying images of the MQM leader were removed in a show of might by the Rangers under full media glare. “Pakistan zindabad (long live) or not?” became one of the staple questions asked by the law-enforcers of suspects believed to be MQM workers, operators or sympathisers.
Against a backdrop of what is increasingly being seen as a hell-bent-for-leather, selective operation, new concerns have begun to surface. Will the optics of the use of force benefit the law-enforcers or the hardliners?
There is a growing consensus that while the removal of encroachments is a positive step, it should be executed as an across-the-board policy rather than targeting the infrastructure of just one party. The erasing of wall-chalkings, banners, posters and flags — an eyesore for citizens anyway — should also be done as a policy for all, rather than against a particular group.
The law-enforcement agencies should be careful that they only target criminals, terrorists and those directly linked with foreign intelligence agencies in intelligence-based, precise operations. Meanwhile, MQM leaders and workers who want to continue with mainstream politics should be allowed to do so.
Experience shows that attempts by the establishment to play one faction against the other ultimately engenders negative results. Therefore, let the new-look party evolve freely, or go down in a natural manner. The only task which the authorities must focus on is to ensure that no person is allowed to violate the law. The bottom line: the biggest political force in Pakistan’s biggest city needs subtle handling.
Meanwhile, the party’s internal challenge is as grave as its external one. The issues of Altaf Hussain’s deteriorating health and erratic behavior have been a source of concern in the party’s upper hierarchy for quite a while. Sharp internal rifts between leaders sitting in Pakistan and those who live in London have further aggravated the situation. “We have not been allowed to effectively deal with outside pressures and the crackdown against the party,” disclosed an MQM MNA, requesting anonymity. “Altaf Hussain’s speeches were a problem for us even before the court slapped a ban on them. Every time he spoke, we held our breath because we knew the party would have to move full swing to defend him and explain his often absurd remarks against assorted state institutions, including the army.”
Hussain also often came down hard on local leaders, making and breaking the coordination committee at will. Party office-bearers were sometimes publicly humiliated, and even beaten by workers at the behest of Hussain.
According to an MQM MPA, Hussain’s erratic nature had created many problems for the party, even in the past. However, this latest crisis, he says, came out of the blue. “We had meaningful talks with the federal and provincial governments and the issue was about to get resolved — at least on paper, but then somebody in the London office told Altaf bhai that the coordination committee had compromised the party’s respect by going to see the ministers at their offices, instead of having them come to the hunger-strike camp. The irony is that this was, in fact, scheduled the very next day. But Altaf sahib went berserk before that could happen.”
Another big challenge for Farooq Sattar and co. will be handling the militant cells in the MQM in Pakistan and abroad, which, according to reliable sources, are only answerable to Hussain and his few hand-picked and trusted officials.
Keeping the MQM workers support intact is also a challenging task. Hussain has a reputation of connecting with workers and their families at a personal level; that’s how he has been able to retain control over the party during his more than two decade-long absence from Karachi. Even many youngsters, who have never even seen him in person, feel connected with him.
Hussain’s near cult status notwithstanding, the latest crisis has highlighted two bitter facts for the MQM. Firstly, the perception of the party remains so negative all over Pakistan, that it borders on bias. The manner in which politicians, media personnel and defence and political analysts, have started demanding a ban on the MQM shows how it is perceived outside urban Sindh. Not a single conciliatory voice has come in its support. A few PPP, PMLN and PTI leaders did say they opposed the demand to ban the MQM, but the voices branding the party “traitor,” “Indian agent,” “terrorists and criminals” were far stronger in number, volume and outreach.
Altaf Hussain will continue to face the heat as the cases against him for inciting violence will be pursued in London. Although they pose no immediate threat to him, the pressure from his rivals and isolation from his party look set to keep him on the backfoot for a long time to come.
Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.