Iden­tity Pol­i­tics

The MQM can­not be writ­ten off in Pak­istani pol­i­tics. But can it be en­trusted with the stew­ard­ship of Karachi?

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Hus­sain H Zaidi

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.

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