In 2010 in Karachi, billboards and wall-chalking appeared across the city with the term ‘Altafism.’
Unlike the word ‘Bhuttoism’ that was mainly the construct of some passionate lower-tier leadership of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) that was then (from the mid-1980s onwards) adopted by the party leadership, ‘Altafism’ seems to have been the brainchild of the main headship of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).
The term, of course, is associated with the political thinking of the chief of the MQM, Altaf Hussain.
It first appeared as political graffiti on the walls of Karachi in 2010, gradually making its way into the speeches of the MQM activists and members.
The MQM explains Altafism to mean 'doing politics of positive practicalism (sic) ' and/or 'of realism.'
Though it is not a documented doctrine, it did, however, emerge from within the party and was greenlighted by the party head.
The term seems to have come about to describe the synthesis reached by the party's intelligentsia after a hectic discourse within the MQM in the last decade.
The discourse was an intra-party debate about what the party's ideology was after it evolved from being a Mohajir-centric party to trying to become a more widespread and non-ethnic political entity.
Even though the MQM's main support still comes from Sindh's Urdu speakers, an ideological conflict had erupted in the party when it clashed with the state on the streets of Karachi in the 1990s.
Facing three separate spats of operations as described by the government of the time in the said decade, the party suffered concentrated state action, first by the military (1992-93) and then by para-military outfits and the police (1994-96).
Noman Beig in his lengthy paper, ‘MQM: From Mohalla to the Mainstream’ and French academic and author Laurent Gayar in ‘Guns, Slums & Yellow Devils’ suggest that the authorities at the time of the operations explained them as a way to 'expose the party’s criminal activities.’
Gradually the accusations then led to some organs of the security agencies and the government accusing the MQM of wanting ‘to break Karachi from rest of the country and turn it into a new homeland for Mohajirs called Jinnahpur.' Both Beig and Gayar are highly sceptical about the Jinnahpur claim in their respective studies and it was also something that the MQM constantly denied.
But it was only recently that former IB Chief, Brig. Billa, finally went on record saying that the whole Jinnahpur issue was largely a fabrication.
There is however truth in the fact that the MQM's sudden rise to power in Karachi (in the 1980s) did seem to have galvanised the inexperienced party leadership into exhibiting aggressive, almost totalitarian tendencies.
But since the party’s electoral rise also disturbed the traditional political balance of Karachi (and of Sindh at large), it is also correct that the party did face multiple attempts by those affected by the rise to undermine it.
The state as a whole too began feeling the pinch when the party started to challenge it. In 1979 Altaf Husain was arrested for allegedly burning a Pakistani flag, a charge he denied. Then during a 1986 rally in Karachi he described the Pakistani state as being ‘hegemony of the Punjabi elite.’
Dutch author Oskar Vaarkaik who spent more than two years in Karachi and Hyderabad studying the politics of the MQM (in the 90s), wrote that many of the MQM leaders also thought that the ruling elite was using other ethnicities settled in Karachi to undermine the economics and sociology of Mohajir majority-ism in the city.
The MQM's ideology was squarely ethnic (Mohajir) between its inception in 1984 till the late 1990s.
However, the party membership and activists began sliding into an existential crisis during the state's operation against the party.
In the ensuing turmoil, two streams of thought emerged within the besieged party: one was that since the Mohajirs were not exactly a people or ethnicity based on any singular collective cultural homogeneity, they would not respond to the crises like the Bengalis of former East Pakistan.
Then, unlike the Bengalis, the Mohajirs were once actually an integral part of the country's ruling and economic elite along with the Punjabis.
This strain of thinking concluded that the Mohajirs' support for the MQM was largely based on the desire that the party would bring them back into the mainstream of Pakistan's power politics and economics. And thus, the MQM should reinvent itself as a mainstream national political party that would not only look after the political and economic interests of Sindh's Mohajirs but also (or at least pretend) to cater to the economic and political aspirations of the country's other urban middle and lower middle-classes.
The second synthesis emerging from the discourse concluded that the MQM's original project to mould the Mohajirs into a single ethnic entity —through the propagation of a narrative of having a shared history of migration from India and having roots in the royal Persian and Turkish Muslim regimes of ancient India — should be retained.
Nevertheless, it was the first strain that won the day and the MQM, from 2002 onwards, began to expand its ideological scope.
It set out to evolve itself into becoming a modernist and secular urban party that was opposed to the 'feudal-mullah nexus' and a supporter of 'the spirit of constructive business and social enterprise and entrepreneurship.'
The party leadership also explains Altafism's pragmatist aspect as something that gives the party the flexibility to eschew ideological contradiction.
For example, the MQM, though vehemently opposed to Political Islam, has in recent times supported certain issues championed by its reactionary and fundamentalist opponents — issues such as the demand to release Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani neurosurgeon jailed in the US on the charge of supporting terrorism in Afghanistan.
This flexibility (pragmatism) then also gives the party the space, at the same time (and breath), to exhibit its opposition against religious militancy through huge rallies, and put up billboards saying ‘Dandey ki Shariat namanzoor’ (No to Shariah law through force) — a campaign it ran late last year.
Both ways, the emergence of the term Altafism and its emphasis on ‘practicalism and realism’ can largely be seen as an outcome of a compromise.
It can be explained as a consensus reached between the modernist, pro-business and secular aspirations of the party's new leadership and the hyper populism of the old guard that still roots its rhetoric in the horrid memory of the bloodshed witnessed during the state's operations against the party and in imagery entrenched in the idiom of martyrdom found in the tales of defiance in Sufi folklore.