November Issue 2014
Till Need Do Us Part
Everyone is familiar with the lota — the unprincipled politician who cares nothing for his constituents and is ready to shift allegiances on a dime if it suits him — but in Pakistan we also have some lota political parties. Take the MQM. Despite its claims of liberalism and anti-feudalism, is beholden to no ideology but its own advancement. It has cosied up to military dictators, been a part of coalition governments with every political party in the country and made quitting and rejoining more or less an annual feature. In the last PPP federal government the supposed point of disagreement was an increase in electricity and gas prices; now the falling out with the party is over inartful comments made by Khursheed Shah about mohajirs and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s condescending attitude towards the party. But make no mistake: everything the MQM does is with the sole aim of retaining its power in Karachi.
Forget the proximate causes of the MQM’s latest tussle with the PPP. The unspoken heart of the dispute is the inability and unwillingness of the PPP to hold local elections. Keeping power in the hands of the provincial government has served the PPP well. When the police operation was launched in Karachi last year, the PPP ensured that the MQM would be the chief target by filling the upper ranks of the police with veterans of the 1990s operations against the party. It should go without saying that all the parties in Karachi have made the use of armed gangs and extortion a central part of their tactics for holding on to power and the MQM, as the largest party in the city, is thus more guilty than most. But even allowing for that, promoting the likes of Shahid Hayat was meant as a deliberate provocation to the MQM.
The party also has some moral standing when it comes to the issue of local bodies elections. The constitution requires them to be held regularly, but it has been over a decade since we last did so. The Supreme Court has been urging the provincial governments to do so ever since last year’s general elections, but deadline after deadline has passed without any action being taken. Only when the MQM quit the Sindh government was a local government bill finally passed by the assembly — and that too without any input from the MQM. Once local government elections are held, and the MQM takes control of Karachi, expect there to be a let-up in strikes and fights. Till then, though, it is open season on the PPP.
In attacking the PPP, the MQM has done its image no favours. Filing a blasphemy case against Khursheed Shah for his comments about mohajirs reeks of opportunism. Taken in context, what Shah was trying to say is that mohajirs have now been Pakistanis for decades and so it is no longer necessary to refer to them as migrants. He just happened to utter this boringly conventional statement in a way that was designed to offend. And the MQM are masters of taking fake umbrage. But any political victory it gains over Shah and the PPP will come at a cost to the country. The mere accusation of blasphemy in this country is an invitation for vigilantes and extremists to take the law into their own hands. The MQM claims to stand against the TTP and its ideology, but is willing to appropriate it for its own ends when it suits them. They had done the same thing with their massive rallies in favour of Aafia Siddiqui and have, once again, shown that convenience will always trump principles.
Putting pressure on the PPP is also behind the MQM’s revival of its obsession with creating new provinces. It has wisely decided not just to ask for Karachi to be separated from Sindh, but called for 20 new provinces. The division of Punjab into smaller units is also something the PPP supports because it thinks it can compete with the PML-N and PTI in South Punjab. But for Karachi to become its own province is a non-starter. It generates such an overwhelming percentage of the revenue of the province that without it the rest of Sindh may sink. The MQM may argue that the transfer of wealth is unfair and rural Sindh should fend for itself, but everywhere in the world, commercial hubs subsidise less fortunate areas.
MQM knows that it won’t get its separate province and so this is a continuation of its strategy to keep the pressure on the PPP. For the last year the party has had to remain relatively quiet because of Altaf Hussain’s legal woes and the Imran Farooq murder case. Now, though, there are indications that Scotland Yard may drop the money laundering charges against Altaf. This allows the MQM to stage a show of strength once again.
At the same time, the MQM is keeping its national ambitions in mind. The party has largely remained aloof from the Islamabad dharnas, but what statements it has made were largely supportive of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri. It is telling that when Imran came to Karachi and railed against rigging, he did not mention MQM, even though the PTI had taken rallies out against the MQM in Karachi after accusing it of rigging NA-250 and even blamed the party for killing one of its activists. Imran’s silence now speaks volumes about the potential for an alliance, with even Tahirul Qadri saying that he hopes the MQM will join him for his countrywide rallies.
When the MQM sneezes, the rest of Karachi catches a cold. And with the party now restive and ready to demand power in the city, the next few months, before local elections are finally held, will be a test of the city’s resilience. The strike against Khursheed Shah’s comments was only the opening salvo. There is surely more to come. The MQM is impatient and till it is satiated it will look for confrontation at every turn. It was presented gift-wrapped opportunities when Bilawal asked the party about its namaaloom afraad and proceeded to take full advantage of them. The other political parties now need to sit back and stay out of the MQM’s way.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s November 2014 issue.
Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.