When the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) held its first public rally at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore five years ago, they called it a breakthrough the party needed to enter politics in Punjab. Claims were
made about the advent of a new political ideology in the province, and MQM declared itself the party of the ‘98 percent oppressed population’ of Pakistan.
This happened in August 2006, a mere two years before the 2008 general elections. Five years later, MQM has organised what is so far its biggest rally in Punjab – two years before the general election. Campaigning started in the beginning of April as roads in Lahore were dotted with MQM banners and flags. Most of the Rabita Committee members were present in the provincial capital to oversee the proceedings.
For the neutral and the sceptics, the interest in MQM’s Istehkam-e-Pakistan rally was out of curiosity. The last MQM rally in Lahore was labelled a “rental rally” and there were accusations that activists were flown down from Karachi and Hyderabad. MQM had initially planned to stage this rally at Minar-e-Pakistan but the venue was moved to the Punjab Football Stadium because the Punjab government had security concerns.
On the day of the event, roads leading to stadium were blocked with containers and Ferozpur Road was made the only entry point. Heavy police contingents guarded the event. MQM activists from Karachi were
part of a vigilance committee that primarily took care of security. There were at least 13 different checkpoints from Ferozpur Road to the stadium entrance. Body scanners and signal jammers were installed around the venue. MQM’s trademark discipline was particularly visible at the Punjab Stadium as thousands entered the stadium in an organised manner. There were MQM flags all over, the crowd was enthusiastic, and speakers
blared out remakes of popular Punjabi songs that praised the party and its founder-leader Altaf Hussain.
Not everybody spoke or understood Urdu very well. M Sajid from Muzzafargarh said his love for ‘Altaf Bhai’ had brought him there. “I have been part of the party for over a year and we brought along 120
people from our village Shah Jamal.” Many said they had seen MQM perform in Karachi, especially during
Mustafa Kamal’s tenure as the city nazim, and believed the party could bring a change. “We have tried so many leaders but none of them ever helped us,” said Rizwan Ali from Bhakkar. “We believe the MQM will
provide us justice.” A few did confess having been dragged along by friends or relatives, but none said anything about allegations of violence on the MQM in the past.\
Lahoris were clearly not interested in the rally, primarily because of the perception here of MQM’s links to organised crime — allegationsthat the party has always denied. Speaking to TFT, some expressed fears MQM’s arrival might lead to increased crime or violence in the city.
The MQM leadership was satisfied with the turnout, which according to conservative estimates was 10,000 to 15,000 inside the stadium. There were scores of MQM supporters outside the stadium as well.
“The MQM is here to stay in Punjab,” said Faisal Sabzwari, minister for Youth Affairs, Sindh. “We are making a long-term strategy which may not show immediate results,” he told TFT. “Over the course of time, we will develop our organisation and structure in the province and gain a foothold in the politics of Punjab.” Sabzwari said the MQM was looking forward to the 2013 elections and promised “a few pleasant surprises for our supporters”. It was evident during the rally that MQM definitely piqued interest in people who travelled from far-off places, and most certainly none of them were from Karachi. However, what remains to be seen is whether they will achieve any tangible success in the upcoming elections or will this again be an exercise in futility, much like the last rally in August 2006.