MQM: Existential Crisis or Cross Roads into the Unknown?


Dr. Moeed Prizada |

MQM-Pakistan’s lackluster performance in the Senate Elections of March 3, 2018, has sent shock waves across Pakistani politics. Dr. Farogh Naseem, the constitutional expert, was the only MQM senator elected and that too with marginal votes (Senate Elections have complex counting formula). The rot inside the ranks of the once mighty MQM, now split into several factions with “PIB” and “Bahadrabad” adding to the “Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP)” is now obvious. Political pundits and journalists have declared victories of PPP, PMLN, and PTI as per their preferences. The ground reality remains murky – One thing is, however, clear; even MQM’s erstwhile leaders are staring into a dark alley trying to make sense of what lies ahead. No one knows for sure.

Rangers action, Operation Clean-up, that first started in the early months of 2013, before the general elections under the directive of Supreme Court and continues to this day has changed the political dynamics of Karachi politics. MQM facing daunting political challenges of its own from late 90’s was increasingly reliant, by 2011-12, upon its militant gangs that were synchronized through what was commonly called as “sector commanders”.

Media reporters and Anchors had remained terrified of midnight calls by MQM leaders and party workers – it stopped them from identifying, naming and shaming the real culprits after every orgy of blood and fire. Pakistani media, despite its large size, and plurality, was never able to play its positive role in restoring politics of Karachi.

Inter-gang warfare between MQM, Amman Committees of PPP, factions of ANP, Sunni Tehrik and Pashtun factions broadly referred to as “Karachi Taliban” had grown to such a frenzied level that the city would come to a “standstill” for several days in a row, again and again, and again. Citizens – industrial laborers, office workers, transporters, small traders, school teachers, mothers, doctors, nurses, virtually all living beings – big business, the stock market and even MQM wanted an operation. General Rizwan Akhtar, the then DG.

Rangers Karachi, who initially became the face of this operation, later moved to Islamabad becoming the head of Inter-Services Intelligence, as DG-ISI. He brought to his new role an intimate understanding of Karachi’s map of violence and its characters. Rangers now under General Bilal Akbar, with the administrative support of Corps. Commander Karachi, Naveed Mukhtar and backed with unrelenting streams of intelligence continued on a project that in 2012 would have earned the nickname of “Mission Impossible” and that by the beginning of 2015 had broken the back of what can be called an “urban urgency” ably supported by outside regional interests. A shrunken life of fear – defined by extortions, violence, guns to the head, bullets in letters, dead bodies on streets – had continued unabated since 2007.

Read more: MQM’s existential crises

What happened in 1980’s and 1990’s is another story. Many strange bedfellows, unlikely allies all played their role at several stages. Thus, what was kick-started under directives of the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, led to the recovery of an urban megalopolis, of twenty million, from the wrenches of unending chaos – that was for all practical purposes considered a lost case by 2012. Nawaz government, from Sept 2013 played a crucial role.

MQM, that had initially supported the operation, and PPP that later saw itself becoming an unexpected target tried every trick to wriggle out of their commitments to Karachi but the Nawaz government and its interior minister stayed the course. Ex-Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif emerged, with his life-size posters smarting moustaches – as the most popular character on streets of Karachi – yet the success of this turn around was a national endeavor that saw Rangers, Intelligence, courts, media and political parties – and staunch enemies like PML-N and PTI – all dancing together in a theatre pushing things towards a logical end.

The decision of the Lahore High Court that directed Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) to ban the speeches of Altaf Hussian on Pakistan’s rumbustious television screens was a strategic milestone. Fear had always provided glue to MQM’s militant hold on city – and by virtue of that on Pakistan.

If Anchors sitting in Islamabad would cross red lines set by Altaf Hussain, and defy the dictates of MQM leaders, then they would face the music from their bosses who would plead them to obey MQM demands – unless they wanted channel’s offices and workers attacked in Karachi. The tragic case of the Geo reporter, Wali Khan Babar, and the murders of witnesses that followed served as a daily sharp reminder. Its’ that universe of fear around Karachi and its politics, destroyed by the Ranger’s operation, that has principally deprived MQM’s politics of its vitally needed binding force. It might not have always been the case.

MQM was genuinely popular in 1988 and 1990 elections. Grievances that Altaf Hussain powerfully articulated genuinely existed and still remain unresolved to a great extent.

Sources inside the MQM – its several factions – who spoke to Global Village Space argue that, on its own, Muhajir’s absolute unquestioned support to MQM has never been more than 30-40% of the total community – but that 30-40% core constituency provided the much needed “center of gravity”. However, by July 1997, when MQM changed its official name from “Mohajir Qaumi Movement” to “Muttahida Qaumi Movement” it was getting obvious that electoral victories in Karachi cannot be sustained on the basis of one ethnicity alone.

Migrants from the north – KP, and Punjab – had increasingly changed or defined the demographics of “suburbs” or peripheral areas of Karachi. Thus Lyari, Kemari, Katti Pahari, Sohrab Goth, Gulshan-e-Maymar, Qayyumabad, Qaidabad, Benares, Mangopir and Kanwari Colony and other areas were getting mixed, either being dominated by Pathans, Baloch and Punjabis or the center of gravity was lost to what had been described as “Muhajirs”. It is this phenomenon to which the ANP leader, Shahi Syed, coined his famous phrase that “Karachi is the largest Pathan city in the world”.  

MQM was genuinely popular in 1988 and 1990 elections. Grievances that Altaf Hussain powerfully articulated genuinely existed and still remain unresolved to a great extent.

 So, when Altaf Hussain decided to become “Mutahida Qaumi Movement” it was not necessarily an olive branch to Islamabad or national politics – but an essential shrewd adjustment to changing local realities. Tools of fear and election engineering were thus much needed from this point onwards. While Indian agencies may have started their flirtation with Altaf Hussain soon after his arrival to London, in 1992, as confessions of Tariq Mir and other MQM accounts reveal, but more serious relations crystallized after the Indo-Pakistani nuclear explosions of May 1998, when Altaf Hussain, according to some sources, ended up signing an MOU, with Indian agencies (for strategic support in Karachi) in lieu for generous financial support in London.

These MOUs, of 1998/99, (not known then) were supposed to curtail strategic and commercial transactions through Karachi (when needed); with the emergence of CPEC on the horizon, in 2013/14, this necessitated the Pakistani establishment to clear up Karachi for larger regional developments. In the general elections of 2002, MQM lost five seats – not only from Karachi Defense but also from PIB Colony, Gulshane- Iqbal and Orangi town – despite Ishrat ul Abad, in position as Governor and a sympathetic Musharraf sitting at top in Islamabad.

Read more: Are MQM factions thinking of uniting against PPP for 2018 elections?

This was the time when Musharraf – who hated MQM as Army Chief – was now becoming the “Musharraf –the politician” who had identified Chaudharys’ in Punjab and MQM in Karachi as his “King Parties”. In late 2007/8 period when British banks, getting more efficient in post 7/7 world, on their own spotted large financial transactions in MQM accounts in London, a loyal Musharraf government submitted affidavits to British banks supporting MQM’s funds as genuine.

This fact was later cited, by MQM-London, to British police, as evidence against charges of money laundering when the crunch time came after 2014. (MQM sources & sources in London) But coming back, in 2002, MQM despite its reversals at polls, was able to get a very strong position inside Sindh government, of Chief Minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim, with key ministries of Home, Finance, Planning and Development and Local Government. Waseem Akhtar, now a toothless Mayor of Karachi, had then emerged as the powerful Home Minister of Sindh – supported by Musharraf from Islamabad. For Altaf, who had realized the growing electoral weaknesses as revealed in 2002, the way forward was “administrative consolidation” and “election engineering”.

Read more: Strong reaction by politicians to the announced MQM-PSP alliance?

This period, 2002 to 2008, saw an unprecedented penetration of MQM into the power machine of Karachi. While police officers, of 1990’s operations, were being gunned down and intelligence chiefs kept informing Musharraf of what was happening – he kept ignoring. Stage was set for a larger political control. It was this political paradigm of power and control that was challenged by PPP – through its own gangs – after the 2008 elections.

The years of street fighting that followed till 2012, had a historic logic built into them. It was a political turf war, to begin with; it gradually created a momentum of its own; no side would have imagined its end state – that they will all lose control. Three principal combatants – MQM, PPP and ANP – were also allies and partners in central government and thus Karachi police had no real will, autonomy or ability to take and implement the decisions that were needed to bring the situation under control.

By end 2012, all sides were helpless, fighting street wars with marginal returns without any end in sight. In the end, it could only have been the Pakistan Army – which was not being controlled by any side – that had to step in to control the mess. But since 1970’s these repeat cycles of violence – with roots in unsettled political issues – have denied Karachi, and its business world, located at the edge of Arabian Sea, its potential regional role. Army enforced tranquilities cannot be long-term solutions; the kind of political vision that is needed is still nowhere on the horizon.

 It is this Karachi, in which three or four progenies of Mother MQM, are now struggling to define themselves for influence and votes – without the glue of “fear” that helped the politics of Altaf Hussian in the last 20 years.

The main faction that could have been called, “Ground within her feet” of MQM-Pakistan (MQM-P) led by Dr. Farooq Sattar, since its creation in August 2016, got fractured into two MQM-PIB, lead by Dr. Sattar and MQMBahadrabad, now led by Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui, before the Senate elections. This break up before a key development – Senate Elections – was a textbook example of leadership failure amongst equals.

Democracy within western style political parties is based on the convention or principle of “First among Equals” but Dr. Sattar had enjoyed all along, authority merely delegated by Altaf Hussain; so, his forceful assertion of authority at a moment of important decision making crystallized the pre-existing fault lines. Altaf, in a typical fascist style politics, had never allowed any second-tier leadership to evolve under him. The vacuum MQM suddenly experienced after August 2016, could have also happened if Altaf had died a natural death, or was imprisoned by British police, instead of a political blackout by Pakistani courts.

It is this Karachi, in which three or four progenies of Mother MQM, are now struggling to define themselves for influence and votes – without the glue of “fear” that helped the politics of Altaf Hussian in the last 20 years. Currently, both PIB and Bahadrabad factions are unable to define themselves minus Altaf Hussain. Charisma, culture, philosophy and violence all are gone now for the time being. Fundraising was also linked with the violence and international support as has been variously alleged by intelligence sources and revealed by MQM leaders in their off the record discussions.

Read more: Scapegoat: DG rangers denies roll in MQM-P formation

So, while there is no real “leader” a genuine political debate and dialogue between these two factions – PIB and Bahadrabad – before the general elections of 2018 offer the best hope of creating a new entity from the ashes of the old. A triangular political dialogue – involving PSP – could still be better. Pak Sarzameen party (PSP) led by former charismatic Mayor, Mustafa Kamal, falls into a different category. It had taken a position against Altaf Hussian and ethnic politics before anyone else. Given Kamal’s strong rhetoric against Indian agency, RAW, and its links with Altaf Hussain most media and political pundits had viewed Kamal as an established plant and he has ever since struggled under this definition – though privately all MQM leaders talk of Altaf Hussain’s Indian connections and sponsorship; but this is not publicly accepted for most.

Despite the initial lackluster performance of Kamal’s PSP, recent workers’ conventions show sustained better results and in the recent Senate elections, it played a decisive spoiler’s role but under a party discipline – not as disparate elements. So, a triangular dialogue, a dialogue among equals to choose a “First Among Equals” may still happen before the elections of 2018. Politics of Altaf Hussain was based on ‘grievances’ – and while those grievances were genuine he merely used them – and repeatedly – for getting votes and was never interested in resolving those issues.

In hindsight, he was an ordinary person who never had the mettle of a leader for a city as large and complex as Karachi; he was flabbergasted by the national and international attention and material pleasures he received as a result of his power and hold on Karachi. MQM, even in its heydays, never enjoyed the absolute support of more than 30-40% of the Muhajir community; now today Muhajirs, at best, may not constitute more than 50% of Karachi’s population.

Read more: MQM drama continues: Farooq Sattar elected party chief again

Memons, most business savvy and influential community in Karachi, don’t consider themselves “Muhajirs”; they prefer to call themselves just “Memon”. MQM can today claim to control the center of gravity in three out of six districts of Karachi namely: Central, Korangi and East. Even parts of East only, as its politics is changing. It is here that it won the last local elections of 2015. It is increasingly losing ground in South, West and Malir – or was perhaps always less entrenched in these.

Altaf Hussain, meanwhile reportedly has undergone stomach stapling surgery to reduce his weight, has hired a physiotherapist (apparently an attractive one) to bring him back in shape; has reportedly lost 20 kgs and he hopes that his credentials have been whitewashed after cases of money laundering, RAW finances and murder of Dr. Imran Farooq have all collapsed.

All Pakistani politicians are ultimately exonerated by courts – whatever the charge may be – and they cite that endlessly; in his case, he claims a special status since he has been dry cleaned by Her Majesty’s London Metropolitan Police – even if allegations of MI6 and RAW desperately active behind scenes abound.

Thus, what was kick-started under directives of the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, led to the recovery of an urban megalopolis, of twenty million, from the wrenches of unending chaos – that was for all practical purposes considered a lost case by 2012. 

Will Altaf Hussain be ever able to stage a comeback? Looks impossible at the moment. Even those who cherish him in public, admit privately that his time – despite his attractive British physiotherapist – has passed. But the grievances and issues he used for his grandstanding are not only still there but have multiplied since then.

Today’s Karachi is struggling under severe water shortages and a virtually collapsed municipal services; millions of tons of garbage has assumed the form of hills and landmarks. The city is being rendered dysfunctional with illegal constructions and a water-starved city is constructing skyscrapers without the means to provide these with water. Once again businessmen, administrators, and even politicians are wishing for an alien force to provide for solutions. Will these issues decide the fate of Elections in 2018 remains to be seen.

Moeed Pirzada is a prominent TV Anchor and Editor Strategic Affairs with Dunya News Network and a known columnist. He previously served with the Central Superior Services in Pakistan. He studied international relations at Columbia University, New York and Law at London School of Economics, UK. He has been a participant in Chaophraya Dialogue and has lectured and given talks at universities and think tanks including Harvard, Georgetown, Urbana Champaign, National Defense University and many others.