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Trial and tribulation

It is hard to decipher the contradictory statements made by Altaf Hussain in recent weeks. One day he calls for a military takeover and setting up a long-term caretaker administration; and almost the next he lashes out at the military establishment for pinning his party to the wall. How do these views square with each other? We have to leave it to the imagination.

It is not unusual for our political leaders to be inconsistent. Yet it is hard to beat the MQM supremo. Whether his theatrics during his marathon telephonic addresses or live TV interviews are a source of embarrassment or entertainment for even some extremely dedicated followers must be left to the latter to decide. It has become almost a routine affair for Altaf Hussain to sack his party’s coordination committees or threaten to quit the party leadership, only to renege at the pleading of his sobbing followers. It all sounds bizarre and yet the MQM remains the most organised, disciplined and feared political party in the country. Its unwavering mass base has survived despite ups and down experienced by the party since its inception some three decades ago.

Is the MQM finally losing its unchallenged political supremacy over the country’s biggest city? But is the MQM finally losing its unchallenged political supremacy over the country’s biggest city and financial hub? The increasingly incoherent statements of Altaf Hussain and policy flip-flop are a manifestation of a growing sense of insecurity. It is the pressure both inside and outside the country that appears to have shaken the party leadership. The investigation by the London Metropolitan police into Imran Farooq’s murder and the money-laundering case has surely become a major cause of worry for the party. But a much bigger concern is the alleged leverage position of the Pakistani security agencies over the party, by holding the two main suspects in the London murder case.

The crackdown on party members allegedly involved in criminal activities has brought the MQM under further pressure. That to some extent explains the blow hot, blow cold approach of the party leadership. While desperately trying to appease the security establishment, it also finds itself cornered by the alleged extra-judicial killing and arrests of its workers. It has been a love-hate relationship between the MQM and the security establishment since the party’s formation in 1984.

For sure, the emergence of the group as a major political force in Karachi, and in Sindh’s other urban centres, was rooted in the growing ethnic divide in the province. And many believe that the formation of an urban-based Mohajir party received the tacit approval of Gen Zia’s military regime seeking to contain the political hold of the PPP in Sindh. Some kind of liaison between the MQM and the military establishment continued after the return of democratic rule in 1988. But that relationship came under severe strain in the beginning of the 1990s when the MQM’s stranglehold over the country’s economic jugular worried the security agencies.

That led to the disastrous military operation against the group in 1992. The party was then divided by the intelligence agencies and most of the leadership including Altaf Hussain fled the country. The factional fighting resulted in the killing of many senior leaders. Though badly fractured, the party survived the crackdown. Another police operation in 1995 dealt a more severe blow to the party wiping out its much feared militant wing. But ironically, it was yet another military ruler, Gen Musharraf, under whom the MQM was resurrected. For the next seven years, it remained a critical part of the military-led administration.

During this period, almost all the police officers involved in the 1995 operation were eliminated one by one by, many allege, the party’s armed supporters. The MQM remained a part of the ruling coalition formed after the restoration of the civilian democratic rule in 2008. But the situation now seems to be changing yet again. Marginalised in the new power structure and facing another crackdown, the sense of insecurity in the leadership is evident. Altaf Hussain’s 14 questions addressed to the army chief manifests a fear of being under siege.

Unsurprisingly, he has raised the issue of the 1992 and 1995 operations that keeps haunting the party leadership. The allegation of excesses against the security agencies may not be credible, but the MQM’s anxiety is not without reason given its experience of the past operations. In the absence of an elected city government the MQM’s political control over Karachi appears to have weakened. Therefore the party’s demand for granting Karachi a separate administrative status is understandable, though hard to materialise in the current political clime. There’s no sign of the local government system being restored soon. But even if elections are held it is not certain that the MQM will retain its full control over the Karachi city government.

Above all, the massive influx of immigrants has changed the ethnic balance of Karachi’s population in the last decade. And despite its serious efforts, the party has not been able to shed its Mohajir predisposition, making it difficult for it to win over the confidence of other ethnic groups. The party may still have maintained its stronghold among Mohajirs, but even that support is not unquestionable anymore. For the first time, in last year’s elections, the MQM was seriously challenged in its bastion by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf which is in a better position to win over other ethnic communities. With the rapid demographic change, the dynamics of Karachi’s politics of control have also transformed.

The future politics of the city will be defined by these changing realities. A truly middle class and secular party, albeit with its own paradoxes and contradictions, the MQM now faces, perhaps, its toughest challenge. Though it has broken into dynastical power structures, it is a party driven on personality cult. The future of the party without Altaf Hussain is hard to imagine, and yet his continued grip of the leadership may be the biggest threat to it.–Dawn

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