By Najam Sethi
22 May 2015
Sindh Governor Dr Ishratul Ibad in Karachi has run into heavy weather with his erstwhile patron Altaf Hussain in London. Altaf Bhai says enough is enough, the governor is useless, he doesn’t defend and protect the MQM, and he should resign and join the ranks of the protestors or he will be excommunicated from the MQM. This isn’t the first time Dr Ibad has incurred the displeasure of Altaf Bhai for not living up to his expectations. But he’s been canny and survived every such crisis to date and lived to fight another day.
In the earlier crises, Altaf Bhai’s grouse against his handpicked Governor was that Dr Ibad wasn’t doing enough to help extract maximum political concessions and benefits from the MQM’s on-off alliance with Mr Zardari’s PPP in Sindh. But the rocky alliance never completely derailed and Dr Ibad was able to salvage his leverage by some deft maneuvering. His strongest and most resilient card was his calm and cool demeanour in handling Altaf Bhai’s periodic outbursts and appearing as a fair adjudicator and strong bridge in its running disputes with the PPP. But the problem is qualitatively different now.
The MQM is at the receiving end from the military establishment and not the PPP. This is quite unprecedented. In the 1980s and 2000s the MQM was the darling of the military establishment because it was first needed under General Zia ul Haq to counter the PPP in Sindh and then under General Pervez Musharraf to counter the PPP and PMLN in the rest of the country. Even during General Ashfaq Kayani’s time, the military establishment used the MQM to leverage power-relations with the PPP and PMLN – there isn’t one occasion when Altaf Bhai did not side with the military during any of its running spats with the federal government in Islamabad, evidence of which is available in countless statements extolling the generals and threatening martial law. Under General Raheel Sharif, however, the estrangement is complete because the army has no political favourites and seems determined to clean up Karachi in which the MQM’s criminal packs are no less terrorizing than the TTP, RAW, and assorted sectarian and extremist groups. The fact that General Rizvan Akhtar, who earlier served as DG Rangers Sindh, is now the DGISI means that the quality of information about who’s who available to General Sharif is top notch and no political blackmailing or thundering will cow down the new DG Rangers and the Corps Commander Karachi who are in charge of the operation.
It is this singular fact that has eroded whatever influence Governor Dr Ibad used to have in protecting the interests of the MQM in the past. And he isn’t the only one who’s feeling the heat from the military. The Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah and PPP Co-Chairman Asif Zardari are also at their wits’ end. If they don’t cooperate, General Raheel Sharif is likely to lean on the prime minister to impose Governor’s Rule on Sindh with the Governor handpicked by the brass. Surely, that is something that the MQM, PPP and PMLN should all avoid because it would signal the beginning of the end of civilian rule in the country altogether.
Altaf Bhai should also consider that it is very difficult for Governor Ibad to defend proven criminals and terrorists without compromising his position completely and becoming a target of the military himself. As Saulat Mirza’s testimony shows, Dr Ibad was responsible for securing the release from prison of many MQM activists in the past and it would be foolish to try and continue to play the same role when the uncompromising military rather than the deal-making civilians are in charge.
Altaf Bhai’s outburst against Governor Ibad, which was preceded by a tirade against the generals, suggests an acute frustration and rage at his inability to keep the situation from spinning out of control. The noose is tightening around him in London after a statement by the Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, that the government and military establishment intends to cooperate with British police in providing significant evidence related to the murder of Dr Imran Farooq. There is also talk of establishing a new chain of command from London in the event of Altaf Bhai’s indisposition. The hapless Rabita Committee in Karachi is already reeling from the dismissive commands of the Great Leader and several stalwarts have gone into exile in Dubai in order to escape his wrath. The goal of Altaf Bhai’s lieutenants in London is to oust Dr Ibad so that he cannot provide a platform for moderate alternative MQM leadership in Pakistan.
This is misplaced concreteness. Altaf Bhai should think through this situation politically and not emotionally. Dr Ishratul Ibad as Sindh Governor is better than General XYZ in his place. The MQM needs a calm and collected man in the Governor’s House just as much as it needs some fiery hotheads outside.