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MQM in its labyrinth

Updated July 30, 2013

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THE MQM has pledged its support to the PML-N in the presidential elections and the party may also join the federal government soon. Is one surprised? Not really. We have seen this happen many times before.

Seemingly, a visit to the MQM headquarters Nine Zero is enough for any new government in Islamabad to clinch the party’s allegiance. But it may not be so simple, more so in the case of the latest marriage of convenience between the two erstwhile antagonists.

The MQM’s latest cartwheel does not merely reflect a case of political opportunism; it is also indicative of the party’s predicament of being hostage to its own circumstances.

With its top leadership living in permanent exile the party is not an independent actor. Many, if not all, of its political decisions over the last few years — seem to have been largely dictated by the quandary that the MQM faces in operating from a foreign base. The latest bonhomie with the ruling PML-N is testimony to the entangled circumstances the party finds itself in.

An MQM leader, whom I met the night before the party’s decision to support Mamnoon Hussain for president, told me that the British advised the party to support the government and that the party could obviously not say no. It was certainly not the first time that the MQM has heeded such ‘friendly advice’ from the British administration, I was told.

During the five years of the PPP government the MQM left the coalition more than half a dozen times only to be back in the fold a few days later. Many MQM leaders concede in private that these flip-flops have dented the party’s image among its own supporters.

In most cases, according to party sources, the backtracking came at the intervention of British officials both in Pakistan and London. Britain’s deep interest in Pakistani politics is not a secret. Senior British diplomats played a pivotal role in the reconciliation between the PPP and Musharraf’s military-led regime. They also apparently played an important role in getting the MQM to endorse the PPP’s move to force Gen Musharraf to step down.

Since the 1999 military coup, the MQM had stood firmly by Musharraf’s military regime. The alliance helped the party revive its political stronghold in Karachi that had been affected after the crackdowns launched by previous governments. Understandably, the party was reluctant to ditch its benefactor even when his downfall seemed imminent. But the party’s significant electoral support was important to ensure Mr Zardari’s smooth sailing.

A close confidant of Mr Zardari who lived in London reportedly approached the British Foreign Office to persuade the MQM to switch sides, and was successful in his endeavours. Now once more British intervention seems to have worked for the PML-N government. For the MQM it is also amounts to buying security.

Surely the latest development has come at a time when the MQM stands at its most vulnerable point. The recent raids on the party’s London office in connection with the investigation into the Imran Farooq murder case is certainly cause for serious concern among the party leadership.

More worrying for them, however, is the recovery of hundreds and thousands of pounds in cash from various properties owned by the party. The telephonic address of the MQM chief to his supporters in Pakistan last month illustrates the gravity of the situation. If allegations of money laundering are proven in a court of law, they could have serious repercussions for the MQM leader. Formed in 1985, the MQM has seen tougher times. The 1992 military operation divided the party and forced Altaf Hussain and hundreds of other party members to flee the country and seek asylum in Britain and the US.

Another operation three years later virtually eliminated the party’s hardcore elements. Since then Altaf Hussain has run the party from London. Although the party was back in the corridors of power after the 1999 coup, London remained the MQM’s operational nerve centre.

Many Pakistani political leaders have spent time in self-imposed exile in London. But Altaf Hussain is the only Pakistani political leader to have acquired British citizenship. The MQM supreme leader is not likely to return to Pakistan. Britain is his permanent home now. This situation makes the organisation more vulnerable to pressure from the British government.

The fast changing of bedfellows raises questions about the MQM’s credibility as one of the country’s most powerful political forces representing the urban middle classes. Although its support base is confined to Sindh, the party has remained a critical part of every coalition government in the country for the past two decade.

It is not only outside pressure that influences MQM politics; apparently it is also a deep sense of insecurity that compels the party to remain on the right side of the Pakistani security establishment. That explains the party’s steadfast support for Musharraf’s military-led government.

Since its inception some three decades ago the MQM has been allegedly used many times by the intelligence agencies to undermine elected governments. But at other times it has also been ruthlessly persecuted by the same agencies. The party’s capacity to bring the country’s economic and financial jugular to a halt through strong-arm tactics makes the security establishment uneasy. For that reason each government has wanted to keep the MQM inside the tent rather than outside.

No other political party is as paradoxical as the MQM. It can rightly claim to be the only middle class, liberal and secular party in the country with no dynastic politicians in the hierarchy. But it is a one-man show when it comes to decision-making. Now with the leader under a cloud the future of the party is uncertain.

The writer is an author and journalist.

zhussain100@yahoo.com

Twitter: @hidhussain