By Irfan Husain
April 4th, 2015
AS the MQM continues to suffer from death by a thousand cuts, many reasonable voices are offering sane advice to the party to save it from itself.
Two recurrent themes are discernible: separate the party from its top leadership (read Altaf Hussain); and secondly, weed out the criminal elements from its ranks so it functions like a political party.
The idea that Pervez Musharraf might replace Altaf Hussain has been floated, but this overlooks the fact that the ex-general would never agree to lead an urban, ‘ethnic’ party. His large ego would never fit this role, and he still nurses national aspirations. Also, why would the MQM accept him?
With no leverage at the centre, the MQM has become vulnerable.
To his supporters, Altaf Hussain is the MQM, and his removal from the scene, one way or another, would see the party splinter. In all his years as the MQM supremo, he has never allowed a second-tier leadership to emerge. Critics point to the list of senior party officials who have met untimely, violent deaths.
Although he recently named three possible successors, a party spokesman swiftly clarified that Altaf Hussain had actually referred to them as ‘senior members’ of the party. Clearly, a designated successor would be the target of much envy and possible violence.
Then there is the suggestion to somehow wean the party away from its alleged militant wing. People who don’t know Karachi or the MQM have no idea how closely politics, money and crime are interwoven. When it was founded in 1984 as a successor to the student party APMSO, it was as a secular, ethnic party. However, following Mohajir-Pakhtun violence after an accident in which a Mohajir girl was killed by a bus driven by a Pakhtun driver, the party’s reputation for using strong-arm tactics was established.
Mohajirs responded to the young Altaf Hussain in large numbers as he affirmed Mohajir pride and dignity. Gen Zia spotted an opportunity to use this new group to cut the PPP down to size, and allegedly helped the party establish itself. The Zia period also saw Pakhtuns, Punjabis and Sindhis form ‘ethnic’ parties, while established parties acquired militant wings.
Although it became a political player, the MQM’s city-wide ‘sector’ system was pivotal to its hold over the metropolis. I lived in Karachi through most of the MQM’s first two decades, and witnessed its grip tighten. Young followers swaggered around, demanding protection money and ‘donations’ for the party.
Nothing changed when Altaf Hussain, claiming his life was in danger, fled to London to become a British citizen. His network reported directly to him though trusted intermediaries, bypassing the Rabita Committee.
One thing the party leadership has learned over the years is that to be a player at the national level, it has to have seats in the National Assembly. But while it has a lock on most urban Sindh constituencies, it has largely failed in its efforts to win support elsewhere.
However, these seats — usually around 20 — have allowed it to be a junior partner in coalition governments through much of the 1990s till the 2013 elections when the PML-N won a near outright majority and no longer needed the MQM. Suddenly, with no leverage at the centre, the MQM has become vulnerable to the kind of operation we saw recently at Nine Zero, its party headquarters.
Throughout its years as a junior partner in government when it enjoyed the perks of power, it continued to behave like an opposition party. So nobody really trusts the MQM: ever since it stabbed the PPP in the back with a no-confidence motion in 1989 when the two were in coalition, it has been viewed as an unreliable partner. The party leader’s erratic behaviour has not helped.
In order to be sure of its parliamentary seats, it has resorted to many questionable means in every election. One common technique is to reportedly gather the ID cards of its supporters in each sector, and vote in their names. But to get this level of compliance takes muscle, and the MQM has never been reluctant to use it.
The suggestion that somehow, magically, the party’s political wing can be separated from the criminal elements is to ignore reality. As a party of lower-middle class urban dwellers, it has no access to funds except from the cash that its workers allegedly obtain from shaking down businessmen. In short, it cannot exist without Bhatta.
None of this is intended to suggest that Altaf Hussain is a spent force. He still commands the fanatical loyalty of a core group of committed supporters. For them, he has given Mohajirs a sense of dignity, and has enriched thousands of youths who earlier had no prospects.
So whenever Altaf Hussain leaves the scene, the fallout for Karachi will be violent, with area commanders fighting it out for control.