Speculations are rife about MQM’s future, as the party overhauls its structure 

By Abid Hussain

a protest against Imran Khan-Karachi

“Separate Karachi [from the rest of the country] if you dislike its peoples’ mandate,” thundered Altaf Hussain, “If you don’t stop playing with fire, it will burn down all of Pakistan.” The warning – delivered as part of a speech given a day after election results were announced – did not seem to come from the leader of a party that had just won 18 National Assembly seats and 36 Sindh Assembly seats.

The May 11 polls may not have dented the parliamentary presence of his Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) but it has certainly left a bitter aftertaste: The party’s political hold over Karachi has never been shakier since before the mid-1980s. Not only did the MQM have to contend with the loss of nearly 10 per cent votes in the 2013 election as compared to those it polled in 2008, but it also found itself out of the treasury benches, both at the federal and the provincial levels, for the first time since 2002. The barrage of criticism levelled by the media and MQM’s opponents about its alleged involvement in large-scale ballot stuffing and other strong-arm tactics on Election Day has also been unprecedented. According to Dr Meraj ul Huda, a senior leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) in Karachi, a party which has always opposed the MQM’s politics, goes to the extent of saying that the MQM may be passing through one of the most difficult phases in history, with its very survival at stake.

Many believe that these not so helpful developments have forced Hussain to take some extraordinary steps, including the restructuring of the party’s two central bodies — the Rabita Committee and the Karachi Tanzeemi Committee. Many known faces from both the committees – such as Farooq Sattar, Saleem Shahzad and Raza Haroon – have been shown the door and many relatively unknown people – such as Nasir Jamal, Adil Khan, Aslam Afridi, Mian Ateeq, Yousuf Shahwani and Mumtaz Anwar – have been brought in.

Party insiders and some observers, however, claim that the restructuring does not have anything to do with the post-election situation. Ahmed Yusuf, a Karachi-based journalist and a keen follower of MQM’s politics, says the creation of new committees is not a knee-jerk reaction to the votes lost or the irrelevance of the party in government formation. “The reshuffle process was two years in the making,” he says. “The idea is to give new life to the party’s two main branches — the tehreeki (movement branch) and the tanzeemi (organisational branch),” he says. Haider Abbas Rizvi, senior party leader and former member of the National Assembly who is also part of the new Rabbitta Committee, has a similar point of view. “Reorganisation is part of the MQM’s internal accountability process and it was already planned, election results notwithstanding,” he says.

Critics, however, continue to point out that in the aftermath of the May 11 election, Hussain is feeling increasingly edgy over how party affairs are being run in Karachi. He also seems unhappy over how some people in the party’s central leadership could not effectively respond to allegations of rigging against the MQM. If nothing else, many in the media and commentariat believe that he wants to reassert firm control over party organisation in Pakistan, all whilst sitting in his London office. This is what explains the sweeping changes he has made in the party structure. It is in this context that some are predicting, or at least hoping for, a decline in the MQM’s hold over Karachi’s politics. “The party is stuck in a rut,” says Huda as he argues that the current situation may well mean the beginning of the end for MQM.
According to Gibran Peshimam, a journalist and research fellow at University of Oxford, this view does not completely hold merit. “Pundits and opponents have been writing off MQM for decades now,” he says. “The real question to ask is whether there has been a change within the party’s core support base, and what that change is. That will determine how the party’s politics will play out in the future.”

Regardless of whether its support base is changing or not, MQM appears to be under pressure to do things differently, something acknowledged by people within the party. Many insiders and sympathisers that the Herald spoke with agreed that MQM required an immediate shake-up to alter the direction of its politics and to regain support and sympathy of its voters, lost mainly to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in the election. One senior party official described the party’s situation by quoting a Persian verse, which, when translated, reads, “It is neither finding a place to run nor feet to stand upon.”

What has led the MQM into such a situation? The search for an answer has to start with the 2002 election when the party decided to side with General (retd) Pervez Musharraf. This was in a sharp contrast with the party’s image in the 1990s when it was facing military operations and its politics was soaked in an anti-establishment ethos, verging on rebellion against state institutions. The relationship with the military and other security agencies was seen as “us” versus “them” in those turbulent years. The MQM’s decision to join anti-democratic forces and side with Musharraf was a defining moment in the party’s history, according to Taj Haider, a former senator belonging to the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). “The party”, he says, “was playing politics of opportunism at the cost of ideology.”

Since 2002, the MQM has evolved from being a tightly knit fraternity fighting in the streets for the cause of its core supporters – the Urdu-speaking Mohajir residents of Sindh’s urban centres – against both the state and political rivals, to becoming a party machine seeking to throw public goodies at its voters and activists by being a part of the power structure. The change was bolstered further when Mustafa Kamal, an MQM activist, became Karachi’s nazim in the 2005 local government election. Being in power at the national, provincial as well as the metropolitan level not only allowed the party to create a well-oiled network of patronage financed by public money, but it also helped in placing its workers in strategic departments, such as those dealing with road construction, water supply, sanitation and, perhaps most importantly, land revenue and real estate development.

Haris Gazdar, a Karachi-based political economist, pointed out these developments in a 2011 article published in an Indian journal. “The MQM not only controlled municipal functions, but also began to exercise de facto authority over state-owned land around the city, which formally comes under the jurisdiction of the provincial government.”

The second, and simultaneous, development was the party’s repositioning from an ethnicity-based, Mohajir-specific entity to a liberal, progressive, secular organisation — a bulwark against Islamic extremism and religious and sectarian violence. This, incidentally, fit well within the international and national narratives of the time when Pakistan and its foreign supporters – mainly Washington and London – were pitted in a battle of survival against al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani affiliates.

This ‘rebranding’ project, however, faced its first major jolt on May 12, 2007 when Karachi suffered fierce street violence, resulting in the death of about 50 political activists, among whom were those who were getting together at the airport to receive the then suspended Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. The opponents blamed MQM for the deaths. The events of that fateful day also triggered an unrelenting cycle of violence in the city – that resurfaces every now and then with renewed intensity – with the latest bout starting soon after the May 11 election and having already taken scores of lives (See timeline of Karachi violence). As PPP’s Haider points out, “Violence gives birth to counter-violence, resulting in a violent society.”

One of the most significant aspects of this ongoing violence is that the MQM has been alleged to have been involved in each of its recurrences over the last six years or so. “The MQM has fought with every other party, be it their partners or not,” says Huda.
The second setback to the ‘rebranding’ exercise came when the MQM decided to become a coalition partner of the PPP, both at the federal and the provincial levels. This, according to some analysts, gave birth to a politics of wheeling and dealing. “Politics between the PPP and the MQM became transactional, thus converting their political cultures into transactional ones as well,” says journalist Yusuf. There came a stage in this relationship when people started saying that the MQM cannot remain out of power, no matter what the cost. “It [had] become used to being in power and would constantly strive for it,” says Huda. Peshimam echoes the same view when he says that the MQM “actively pursued” to remain within the power corridors “even at the expense of looking rather politically unscrupulous, or even silly”.

While in power, MQM also felt obliged to become the voice of its core Urdu-speaking constituency once again, especially on issues of migration to Karachi, local government elections and violence in and around Lyari. With the rise in migration to the city since the start of the war on terror in 2001 – followed in 2010 and 2011 by the influx of flood victims – Karachi’s ethnic calculus has changed dramatically. While this has given rise to new political forces like Awami National Party (ANP) to claim political stakes in Pakhtun-dominated areas, many Sindhi nationalist groups have also become quite active in many parts of the city which have a sizeable Sindhi-speaking population. The third element in this highly volatile mix is the presence of religious and sectarian organisations which operate in many areas comprised of mixed populations. The most troubling aspect of this new political equation in Karachi, as Peshimam says, is that it has ended MQM’s monopoly over violence in the city. From Lyari to Malir, Landhi to Korangi and even in the Mohajir heartland of Orangi and Baldia, the party is being increasingly challenged by groups not averse to using violence as a political tactic.

Perhaps the most formidable challenge so far to the MQM’s hegemony over the use of violence has come from the People’s Aman Committee (PAC) which originated in Lyari in 2007 as a PPP proxy which has become too big, even for its own patrons. Zafar Baloch, a member of the PAC, however, claims that it is MQM which has alienated most of the non-Mohajir communities in Karachi, leading to a divided cityscape. If MQM claims to be the sole representative of the city, then it should have supported Karachi’s original inhabitants, he says, suggesting that the party has instead treated the indigenous Sindhi and Baloch Karachiites as enemies.

The latest threat to MQM, however, is growing religious militancy which has targeted the party, along with ANP and PPP, during campaigning, on election day and afterwards. The TTP and its sectarian affiliates have claimed responsibility for the murder of at least two of the three MQM members of the provincial assembly killed in the last three years.

All this, on the one hand, has resulted in criminalisation of politics in Karachi on an unprecedented scale, and, on the other, given the Mohajir community an image that most of its middle class and educated members are not comfortable with. “Before MQM came on the scene, the Urdu-speaking community was considered as cultured, educated and peaceful. Thanks to MQM, a member of the Mohajir community is more often than not thought of as an MQM terrorist,” says JI’s Huda.

The MQM is hardly defensive over mixing politics with violence. Among hardcore party sympathisers the sense of victimhood is as imbued as the belief that without MQM being around other ethnic communities would have expelled Mohajirs from Karachi. They, therefore, believe that perpetrating violence and retaliating against violence committed by others is the only way to ensure the physical and political protection of the Mohajir community. “More than any other party, MQM knows what it is up against,” says Yusuf.

The most obvious conclusion that can be drawn from such a situation is that MQM is no longer the only party or group in Karachi that sees violence as a necessary extension of politics. This is one of the main reasons why Karachi cannot be at peace. If MQM was the only force with weapons in Karachi, it could have been pressured into giving up its weapons, says Yusuf. “But all other major stakeholders are also violent, often teaming up with each other against MQM,” he says, citing the examples of militant group Jundullah which, according to him, collaborates with the PAC in Lyari, and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat and TTP — both of which allegedly work in tandem with some political parties in Sohrab Goth. “The MQM will definitely not give up weapons because it would then feel defenceless,” says Yusuf.

The deadly violence that results from these free-for-all turf wars that continue unabated in the city, endangers the interests of a community that has always sided with MQM over the last three decades — traders and businessmen. While this community has been complaining about violence, lawlessness, extortion and kidnapping for ransom, it has also started talking in rather hushed tones about how MQM’s frequent calls for shutter-down and wheel-jam strikes have been taking a toll on their business activities. Backhandedly acknowledging such grievances, in one of its most recent shut-down calls, MQM allowed businesses to reopen after mid-day and profusely thanked the traders and industrialists for cooperating with its call for a strike.

Such changes might have resulted from the realisation that the way the party has done politics in the last decade or so has not worked. “In the last few years, we have only been reactive and immature. We have never been proactive,” a senior MQM official says, without wanting to be named.

Dr Jehanzeb Mughal, a member of MQM’s executive committee, confirms that the party is going through a process of “introspection”. According to him, the MQM leadership realises that the party has lost votes in its home constituencies and that it has to go back to the drawing board in order to “deliver to the masses, socially as well as politically”.

An immediate decision the party needs to make is whether to join the provincial government or not. It held a referendum in the third week of last month to elicit the opinion of its supporters, mainly in Karachi and Hyderabad — ostensibly, as an attempt to show that it cares for the views of its constituents. This is in sharp contrast to how it made its frequently changing decisions between 2008 and 2012 to remain in the PPP-led coalition or step out of it — never once did it seek the opinion of its supporters. On all three occasions, it left the ruling coalition only to rejoin it later.

The referendum could well be a genuine exercise in paying heed to advice from the grassroots. Conversely, it could just be a public relations tactic by a beleaguered party trying to give its supporters a feeling of importance, as a means to bolster its endangered political fortunes. Whatever its intent and regardless of its result, MQM may find that staying out of power for the time being may be in its best political interest. Peshimam feels that MQM doesn’t have much to look forward to by joining the government. In the post 18th Amendment environment, there is not much that a province-specific party could gain from being part of a federal government which in all likelihood will not adopt a pro-Sindh stance on the issues dividing the centre and the provinces. It will serve MQM well to become a “soft opposition” in Sindh, Peshimam says. “As a soft opposition, MQM will have continued – albiet indirect – access to decision making, which it clearly cherishes and has actively pursued in the past,” he says.

Yusuf, too, argues in favour of MQM staying out of power. Since PPP will be returning to Sindhi nationalism as its primary mode of politics in the coming years, MQM would do well to stay away from the PPP’s provincial government, he says. “If MQM decides to join the Sindh government at this point, it will become collateral damage in the struggle to represent Sindh and Sindhi interests.” Yusuf suggests that being in the opposition will allow MQM to have a say on the political issues close to the heart of its electorate without getting the blame for the government’s failures.

Rizvi agrees that being in the opposition will allow the MQM to reinforce its position on issue-to-issue basis. While at the federal level the MQM will be taking an anti-government stance on inter-provincial issues, budget and petroleum prices etc, he says, at the provincial level the party will focus on local government elections and service delivery.

There is another, and perhaps more important, factor which may force MQM to stay out of power for a while. With the party having lost some of its support, as shown by the election results, it may be time for its leadership to sit back and reassess the political situation in Karachi. How potent still the issue of Mohajir nationalism is in the city’s politics and, if it is as pressing as ever, then, what is the best way to remain its flag bearer without being regarded as a violent gang alone — these are fundamental questions that MQM has to grapple with before it can take up the mundane question of being in the government or not.

Notwithstanding different theories about which way its politics will move in the coming months and years, the only thing certain about the party’s future is that nothing is certain. “The MQM is like the Pakistan cricket team. You never know what is going to happen, and often, if not always, there is no explanation for what has or will happen,” says Peshimam.

This article originally appeared in Herald, July 2013 issue.