The MQM Factor
The he MQM has a dual character as a political party. Government after government has kept a blind eye to how it rules Karachi Karachi.
MQM is an enigma. It has always been one. From its role as an important expression for the middle class, largely representing Karachi, to a role in national politics far larger than its actual size, the MQM has often time been the king-maker. Its restricted base though has been its major limitation where, as a party, the MQM has had to compromise on principles of clean politics and has pursued paths that have marred its political face when it has had to compete, often intensely, to keep its power base protected. Driven a by a sense of pervasive insecurity initially and later a habit that began to translate into financial and material exploitation of its exclusive hold over the city, MQM’s militant ways have evolved and become an accompaniment of its political existence.
The ongoing operation against crime and terror in Karachi by federal and provincial law-enforcement agencies imposes yet another dilemma on the MQM. When convicted criminals, hiding from justice, are found in a raid at its Headquarters - from within its precincts - the sham of a purely political character of the party is torn down. And what emerges isn’t pretty, nay horrible, shameful and utterly disgusting. MQM is having a difficulty explaining the political, legal and moral aspects of its duality as a political party.
Not that this wasn't known. The partially unspoken part of MQM’s dual character as a party is the most widely-known secret. Government after government, military or civilian, has kept a blind eye to how MQM has ruled Karachi as its exclusive precinct. If it meant putting some good people down, so be it, but none was allowed to question or challenge MQM’s exclusive hold over Karachi and its affairs, except sporadically. If it brings to mind the mafias that ran Chicago
or New York, you are not terribly out on such comparisons. If Karachi ran, and peacefully if ever, that was always because the MQM permitted it to. Of this, there should be little doubt. Karachi being Karachi, the economic hub of the country and home to a composite mix of some 20 million people, it became any government’s imperative to keep the MQM on board. The price was, thus, always a blind eye to MQM’s ways of doing things and its exclusive hold over the city. Till now, that is. On two separate tracks there seems a closing of the loop around the MQM, forcing a major debate in the country about its future as well as its relevance as a political force. The murder of Dr. Imran Farooq, MQM’s nominal deputy leader after MQM’s Chairman Altaf Hussain, is a trail that seems to be now slowly moving to conclusion. And the signs of it as a handiwork from within the Party increasingly become a possibility. If indeed that is so, and if the MQM leadership in London is culpable, serious charges with disastrous consequences for the MQM will only become certain. Yet another charge that the MQM, and its seniormost leadership, is already grappling with in London, is of money laundering. Allegedly, huge sums of money were discovered at the residence of the MQM supremo, Altaf Hussain. Just this one charge, if proven, can put a major chink in MQM’s chain of command.
Within Pakistan, there is a growing acknowledgement and vocal assertion that crime and militancy had found shelter under the MQM. For the sake of the Party and some of its immensely capable leaders, it is also loudly hoped that such discovery might just be an act of few individuals and not a Party policy. Though such disassociation will take some doing. Such aggregation of adversity is slowly culminating into a real test for the MQM and its leadership. The larger issues: will Altaf Hussain give up the Party’s leadership? Who will be the next leader? Will the new leader be able to keep the Party together? Can the Party survive scrutiny of its criminal nexus? Can it shed militancy as a pattern? Can the Party reinvent itself with strictly political credentials? It is under such shadows that other political parties of Pakistan have begun to fish in Karachi’s troubled waters.
It is in this background that the election in NA-246 was held. The constituency is the headquarters of the MQM, a seat that the MQM has held since the last 29 years since it joined formal electoral politics. Famously situated around Nine Zero, MQM Chairman’s residence, a loss of the seat from the home constituency would practically sound the death knell for MQM’s politics given the intense internal and external scrutiny that the Party is under. Combined with the legal and moral conundrum that besieges MQM a political jolt of this kind would be the last thing that MQM can afford. Before the MQM became the sole owner of this constituency, the Jamaat e Islami had laid claim here for four terms. The JI has continued to hold pockets of influence even when the MQM has literally overwhelmed the constituency. The PTI of Imran Khan is the absolutely new kid on the block.
While the MQM has a stranglehold on the constituency with an exceptional organization to sustain such influence, the JI is the next best organized Party in this constituency, closely following the MQM and never giving up. The PTI has no known organizational structure in this constituency for sure, and nothing much to talk about for Karachi either. The hype on a possible victory by the PTI from this constituency thus came to naught on April 23 when the MQM won, again most handsomely. The PTI was an embarrassingly distant second, while the JI fared even worse than the PTI – despite its fabled organization.
A sub-nationalist sentiment in the MQM is still alive and may have been further intensified against a backdrop of the ongoing operation in Karachi; the MQM still offers the electorate with a political ideology that resonates – in comparison the PTI has no such declared agenda; governance is a function, not an ideology. Thus the MQM remains relevant. The recent bail to its head, Altaf Hussain, in the money-laundering case in London may have proved fortuitous, stalling any ruptures in the Party, were he to be convicted.
The PTI needs a serious rethink over its message. It must hold a clear political philosophy; with an agenda centering on mere honesty and governance is means of cashing on the others’ failures. Banking entirely on Imran Khan’s charisma again is no strategy. Politics is far deeper and must build nations. It should have deeply committed cadres and a message that can convert others. Without a clear message the free vote never turns over. In this case a political philosophy trumped a lack of one. The JI, however, becomes another case of some retrospection. Clearly, the message based only on religion too is not sufficient. The recent national experience with religious ideologies has been most disastrous and far too fresh for most to reinforce such recourse to religious ethos as a plank of politics.
The PTI, without a grassroots organization and a political philosophy, is not the threat in Karachi that it was made to be in the hype leading up to the recent elections. The JI and perhaps the other religious players of politics in Karachi have suffered further regression. The space that all thought in the backdrop of the ongoing operation is not there and were the MQM to clean itself off the attached maleficence, it can continue to hold sway over Karachi’s politics.
The MQM is a potent political force and that is how it must emerge from the challenge. To that end though it must first accept the presence of criminals that lie in its fold and then pledge to excise those from its ranks. The ongoing operations in Karachi and the subsequent investigations will only throw up more evidence and reinforce the negatives that now stick. It is up to the MQM to use this opportunity to restyle itself as a purely political force that must still have a relevance in representing the Urduspeaking population of Pakistan and a city of 20 million. It could even grow to engage the middle-class nationally and be the game-changer that Pakistani politics urgently needs. Harboring thoughts of exterminating MQM are naive, mainstreaming it is political wisdom.
The writer is a retired Air Vice Marshal of the Pakistan Air Force and served as its Deputy Chief of Staff.
Within Pakistan, there is a growing acknowledgement and vocal assertion that crime and militancy had found shelter under the MQM.