The MQM cannot be written off in Pakistani politics. But can it be entrusted with the stewardship of Karachi?
Hate it or love it; enthrone it or denounce it; embrace it or shun it. We can't ignore the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which has dominated urban Sindh politics for over four decades. It is difficult to govern the province when the MQM is part of the government; it is even more difficult to do so
when it is not a coalition partner. Yes, these days the party is under a cloud, as it bears the brunt of the Karachi operation. Yet, as borne out by the outcome of the NA-246 by-poll, one would be jumping the gun if one were to write off the party.
Ever since its birth in 1984, the MQM, at present the country's third largest political party, has faced two dilemmas neither of which it has been able to overcome. The first dilemma is rooted in the MQM's very genesis; the second arises out of the party being a representative of the middle and lower middle classes, whose interests have largely been given a short-shrift by the dominant political classes.
The first dilemma is this: In case the MQM wants to expand its support base and become a national level party, to represent the neglected sections of society irrespective of their domicile, it must not position itself as a party of the Urdu speaking population of urban Sindh (the Mohajirs) only. But in the event that the MQM casts off its exclusively Mohajir credentials, it may see its essential support base shrink.
The MQM was set up in 1984 to champion the rights of the Mohajirs, arguably the most highly educated and politically the most conscious section of Pakistani society. The MQM was the first, and remains, to date the only political party to have raised a voice for Mohajirs. Before the rise of the MQM, there were parties which worked essentially for other minority ethnic groups, such as Sindhis, Pakhtuns and the Baloch — not to forget the Awami League, which was set up to take up the cause of the majority Bengalis before the 1971 break-up of Pakistan.
The MQM’s essentially Mohajir credentials have enabled the party to maintain its electoral edge over the rivals in urban Sindh. The party’s popularity and credentials have been a hard nut to crack despite having been subjected to crackdowns by the authorities from time to time. Even the startling disclosure by the condemned prisoner Saulat Mirza has done little to impair the party's popularity in its constituency.
It's not because the MQM delivered the goods to the people whenever it was in the saddle — federal, provincial or local government — and the party has remained so for the better part of the period between its birth and to date. With the exception of the period (2005-2009) when Mustafa Kamal headed the Karachi local government, the party may not have much to boast of its performance. But judging the MQM's popularity on the touchstone of performance would be to miss the mark. The MQM's popularity is rooted in the perception that if the Mohajirs are to have any voice in matters political or economic, the only effective vehicle available to them is the MQM. As long as this perception persists, the MQM will continue to call the shots in Karachi and other parts of urban Sindh.
At the same time, this perception has worked to the party's disadvantage in that it has held the party back from expanding its support base to other areas of the country. It remains largely an ethnic outfit — an exponent of identity politics, which has both constrained and aided the party's working.
The political parties which practise identity politics by and large share some characteristics. Such parties are internally autocratic organizations, where even slight criticism, let alone dissent, with the top leadership is frowned up. They follow a strictly topdown approach in decision-making, enforce ruthless discipline in their ranks and maintain an aura of secrecy about their working. They make it a point to play upon threats — real or perceived — to the community's existence or rights and whip up public sentiment so that every issue is seen from ethnic or sectarian glasses.
Since love of one identity more often than not implies hatred of others, which are seen as hegemonic, such parties are apt to resort to go over the line to achieve their objectives despite protestation of constitutionalism. They look upon both the ballot and the barrel of the gun as sources of political power. The party is projected as synonymous with the community it stands for and any threat to the party is interpreted as a threat to the people. The mass appeal of these parties depends largely on maintaining such perceptions.
The MQM fits, more or less, into the aforementioned description. It is an authoritarian organization characterized by a strong cult of the supreme leader Altaf Hussain — it may, however, be admitted that authoritarianism runs through Pakistan’s political culture and is not exclusive to the MQM. The Rabita Committee of the MQM is the public face of the party but it is doubtful whether it really calls the shots. Who is effectively responsible for carrying out the directives of the top leader is anybody’s guess. From time to time, the party has been charged with being knee-deep in questionable acts and even masterminding militant activities through a militant wing. It has been accused of creating and sustaining an atmosphere of acute fear so that no credible opposition may stand up to it. Be that as it may, such allegations have not dented the MQM’s tremendous popularity in its rather narrow constituency.
Since 1997 when the party changed its name from the Mohajir Qaumi Movement to the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, the MQM has been keen to cast away its ethnic character and transform itself into a party with a nationwide appeal. In particular, it has sought, albeit with little success, to get its feet under the table in the Punjab province. The party’s manifesto underlines the need for protecting the rights of the neglected segments of society, not merely of the Mohajirs. When Altaf Hussain talks of uprooting the present 'unjust', 'rotten', ' motheaten' system and spearhead a revolution, he has the entire country in his mind. But it is very much doubtful whether the MQM will ever become a nationwide party.
Let's take the second dilemma. To its credit, the MQM gave political representation to the urban middle class, which hitherto found it enormously difficult to reach the popularly elected assemblies in view of the cardinal role that money plays in national politics. To its credit, the MQM is arguably the country’s most progressive political party and eschews sectarianism. Mr Altaf Hussain has made no bones about his hatred of the 'tyrannical' feudal and 'blood-sucking' capitalist classes as well as religious extremism.
But the power of money and political patronage, enormous as it is, has not been lost on the MQM either. It joined hands with the same dominant political classes — the prime symbols of the status quo — whose power it professedly seeks to demolish. The party has served the establishment, which has had strong stakes in the preservation of the current system, as loyally as done by any other political party.
• The MQM has also jealously guarded its urban Sindh constituency and the familiar crime-politics nexus has not been alien to it. Perhaps the party believes that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. The author is a graduate from a Western European university.