MQM: a cycle of peaks & troughs

Published April 18, 2015
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THE media images of blindfolded/hooded MQM leaders and workers, as once was the norm for transporting enemy soldiers, huddling in Rangers vehicles surrounded by armed paramilitaries in body armour, underlined the latest twist in the fortunes of the party.

The party, despite the popular support it enjoys, has been prone to strong-arm tactics from its very inception but its fortunes have hit peaks and troughs at regular intervals reflecting who is at the helm in the military.

There can be no doubt that it has fallen on hard times of late. So much so that apart from what its diehard supporters will believe/not believe, any muck that’s thrown at the party seems to stick in the general perception.

This is a far cry from the first tenure of prime minister Benazir Bhutto. Talking to various sources, for a story in Rawalpindi-Islamabad for the Herald magazine, I came across a gem. The wife of a family friend, a senior officer in the army, recounted an address by the then army chief’s spouse in the Rawalpindi Garrison Ladies Club.

This was a period of considerable tension between the MQM and the PPP-led government both in the province and at the centre. The PPP had launched a crackdown against the MQM. The army chief Gen Mirza Aslam Beg was extremely unhappy with the prime minister.

There can be no doubt that the party has fallen on hard times of late and any muck thrown its way seems to stick in the general perception.

Against this backdrop, addressing the Ladies Club, the army chief’s wife had reportedly launched a tirade against the PPP, decrying what she termed the brutal atrocities that were being visited upon the ‘poor Mohajirs who had sacrificed so much for Pakistan’ by the Benazir Bhutto-led government.

I couldn’t believe my ears but the account was corroborated by other sources. A few days later it was reported in the Herald, along with a cover story that focused on the PPP-army tussle in which the president, Ghulam Ishaq Khan was overtly siding with GHQ.

As the Herald hit the stalls, a telephone call was received at the magazine from the ISPR Karachi’s Major Saulat Raza (later to retire as a brigadier) saying the corps commander, Lt-Gen Asif Nawaz, was unhappy with the contents of the magazine and wanted to meet the editor.

Editors, of course, don’t respond to such summons but the reporter was very curious to hear the army’s point of view in person, so accepted the request. In a pre-meeting, Maj Raza stressed the need for a ‘calm’ discussion, I suspect, because he felt caught between a reputedly bellicose boss and a reporter also known for his volatility.

Having ushered me into the general’s grand office and with the briefest of introductions, the good major quietly left the room. I walked up to his huge desk, as he started to glare at me, pulled a chair and slipped into it.

The corps commander picked up a copy of the Herald with several ‘flags’ marking some of the pages and waving it in front of him growled: “Yaar, yeh kiya likh diya hai. After all, national interest bhi koyee cheez hotee hai.”

Having realised this was not going to end well, I calmly responded: “I thought this was going to be an educated discussion, where I’d hear your point of view and you’d hear mine. I am not prepared to be lectured on national interest.” As I slowly started to get up, I noticed red rising in his face.

Then, the burly six-footer, got up and came round his desk towards your five-foot-nothing reporter at brisk pace. As I contemplated how I’d defend myself, he thrust his right hand forward and said: “Great. Now we understand each other perfectly.”

Having offered me a comfortable sofa, ordering tea and biscuits, Gen Asif Nawaz proceeded to chat for a long time. He explained that the ‘chief’ telephoned him to complain about the Herald’s reporting. He smiled and said it was best to leave the matter alone as more facts could cause more embarrassment, when I offered to carry a rebuttal but only if my report was established as inaccurate.

A few months later, it was reported in the papers that on the eve of Benazir Bhutto’s dismissal as prime minister, it was Asif Nawaz who called MQM leader (then a key player) Dr Imran Farooq and briefed him on the soon-to-be-public decision.

The history beyond that point is well-documented too where the MQM became an ally of Nawaz Sharif and, backed by the army, helped Jam Sadiq Ali in using entirely undemocratic means to convert the PPP’s majority into a minority to become chief minister.

Later the MQM would face a debilitating operation during Benazir Bhutto’s second tenure, followed by a brief honeymoon period when Nawaz Sharif came to power for the second time in 1996. But after the assassination of governor Hakim Said in 1998 was blamed on it, the party again incurred the wrath of the authorities.

With the 1999 coup and Gen Pervez Musharraf’s long tenure at the helm, it was again given a carte blanche to run urban Sindh. This period saw unprecedented flow of development funds to, and projects being completed in, Karachi in particular. It was also when almost all police officers who had spearheaded the operation against it in Benazir Bhutto’s second term were eliminated.

The peak of this close relationship was evidenced when the then suspended chief justice was stopped in May 2007 from entering Karachi mostly by the MQM reportedly at the behest of Gen Musharraf’s military intelligence chief Maj-Gen Nadeem Aijaz.

After Musharraf’s exit, it capitalised fully on the need of the Asif Zardari-led PPP to stay in power because it failed to win an outright majority in the 2008 elections. MQM enjoyed tacit military support too as it refused to endorse the infamous NRO in parliament which would have given a boost to the PPP.

Now that the MQM appears friendless in Islamabad and more importantly in Rawalpindi, let’s see how it can shape its future. Next week’s Karachi by-election will be a pointer.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2015

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