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MQM: the battle within

March 16, 2016

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The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THERE is a sense of déjà vu as cracks in the MQM’s ranks widen. Some among the old guard have already joined the rebellion and many more are expected to follow. It is certainly the most serious challenge to the party and its self-exiled supremo who had confronted this kind of situation in the past too. It, however, remains to be seen whether the dissidents succeed this time in breaking Altaf Hussain’s stranglehold over the party and demolish his personality cult. Such attempts in the past had ended in a whimper.

Although discontent in the party had been evident for some time, it was the return of Mustafa Kamal that precipitated the revolt. Once a rising star of the party, the ex-Karachi mayor had left the country, after falling out of favour with the ‘great leader’. He was, perhaps, the most unlikely challenger.

Mustafa Kamal has never been in the party’s top echelon. His coming to the front and throwing down the gauntlet has taken most observers by surprise. His well-choreographed resurfacing may not have been possible without some backing from the security establishment, which had long been trying to engineer a split in the party without much success. Can the former party whiz kid deliver what the heavyweights failed to in the past?

The MQM has been the enfant terrible of Pakistani politics that has seen many ups and down since the party’s inception. The party owes its initial rise to some extent to the support of the security establishment. But the fear of its getting too powerful and its militant wing establishing a reign of terror led to frequent crackdowns against it. Ironically, the party that has been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in the country’s biggest city and accused of having links with the Indian intelligence agency, RAW has remained part of the country’s power structure over almost three decades.


Despite all the pressures and problems, the MQM’s vote bank has largely remained intact.


It was during the 1992 operation that the security establishment created the Haqqiqi faction led by Afaq Ahmed and Amir Khan. But the split could never present a serious challenge to the party. The MQM survived a series of operations to bounce back and regain its political base in Karachi and other urban towns in Sindh. Although it had genuine mass support among the Urdu-speaking middle and lower-middle classes, it was still accused of using terror tactics to subdue any opposition. Many of those who dared to voice dissent met with a violent end.

Such has been its reign of terror that most of the police officers who were involved in the 1995 operation were eliminated while the party was part of the Musharraf government. Political expediency compelled the security establishment and civilian governments to ignore the MQM’s alleged criminal activities. The party is now confronting yet another operation that has allegedly killed scores of its activists in the ‘encounters’.

Yet the party has not lost its mass support base as was evident from its success in the recent local government elections in Karachi, Hyderabad and some other towns in Sindh. But Altaf Hussain’s personal charisma and authority have appeared to be on the wane over the past few years. He is much more vulnerable now than ever before as he faces investigation by Scotland Yard in the cases of money laundering and the murder of Imran Farooq. A BBC report quoting British investigators that alleged he was receiving financial support from the Indian government has further damaged his position. The confessional statement by Sarfraz Merchant and Tariq Mir, two of his closest advisers in London give credence to the report.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the dissidents have targeted the MQM leaders particularly for alleged Indian connections questioning his allegiance to this country. Such charges have been levelled against the party in the past too, but the issue has become much more serious this time with insiders spilling the beans.

Unlike in the past, the rebels are not interested in creating another faction but seek a complete rupture and plan to form a new political party the name of which is not known as yet. While Mohajir alienation remains the buzzword the rebels also seek to broaden their appeal to mobilise support among other ethnic groups as well. It makes sense given the new multi-ethnic reality of Karachi whose population has almost doubled over the past 20 years largely because of migration from the northwest.

Interestingly, it seems that many of those who are implicated in serious criminal cases would find it opportunistic to jump on the new bandwagon to buy protection. Anis Kaimkhani who was the first to join Mustafa Kamal is named in the Baldia Town factory arson case. Similarly, Wasim Aftab too has criminal cases pending against him. That raises questions about the rebels claim to cleanse their ranks of criminals.

It is certainly a different situation from 1992 when Altaf Hussain had a much stronger hold on the party and the leadership was not so demoralised as it is now. Being out of the country for so long and reports of his failing health have also weakened his grip. But it is too early to write him off completely. Despite all the pressures and problems, the MQM’s vote bank has largely remained intact.

In fact, the feeling of being victimised and discriminated against has rallied the Urdu-speaking middle class around the MQM, despite their serious reservations about Altaf Hussain’s leadership and the party’s alleged involvement in crime and violence. This was very much evident in the MQM’s victory late last year in the NA-246 by-election with a much larger margin.

Mustafa Kamal with his clean image and reputation as an effective former administrator may find appeal among those disgruntled middle-class party supporters, but it will not be easy to demolish Altaf Hussain’s cult among the lower-middle-class loyalists. The suspicion of the security establishment being behind the split may also keep many of them on the fringes. It is a battle within and one is not sure about its outcome.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2016