LONG before revelations emerging from the Panama Papers caused a furore over offshore assets allegedly held by the prime minister’s family and other important political and business figures, the political narrative in Pakistan had already turned normative and divisive. The army chief’s public denunciation of corruption, followed shortly after by the news of the dismissal of senior army officers, added further substance to the demand for across-the-board accountability.
Whether the ongoing normative discourse is able to cleanse the muddied political waters, and usher in political reform and good governance, is yet to be seen. What is certain is that democracy and corruption can no longer coexist as they have for some years now. The combination of patronage and dynastic politics may also become indefensible. A new breed of young and restless electorates has risen, who not only demand a piece of the pie, but link their collective wellbeing to cleaner and efficient governments — national, provincial and local.
No wonder then, that the signs of stress are visible on the three most dominant political forces — PPP, PML-N and MQM. While Asif Zardari is in self-exile, his son and party chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is struggling to meet two pressing challenges: saving the party’s image (tarnished by the allegations of corruption and mal-governance, particularly in Sindh), and reclaiming the constituencies lost to PTI and others, in Punjab and elsewhere.
Similarly, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is facing his nemesis in the form of document leaks, which connect his children to offshore companies and assets. While he may elude the resulting political pressure of a fissiparous opposition, he cannot avoid the necessity of evolving his style of politics beyond traditional ploys of patronage and selective development, if he is going to save his constituencies from the onslaught of PTI and others.
To emerge as a viable alternative, PSP must play its cards right.
But it is MQM which — while apparently in dire straits — remains a paradox for political observers. There are some who predict its early unravelling; sending its leader, Altaf Hussain, into oblivion. Their ominous punditry draws on a long list — MQM’s alleged connections with RAW; the ban on its chief’s public communications; the crushing of its ‘militant wing’ by the Rangers; its shrinking role in local and national politics, and of course; the defection of its key leaders to (and the rise of) the newly formed Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP).
But there are others who still see MQM as a political force to reckon with in local and national politics, at least as long as Altaf Hussain is relevant or alive. They refer to the streak of MQM’s victories in by-elections held on its traditional turf. Some analysts even venture to guess that MQM will gain more sympathy votes on the basis of perceived persecution of Mohajirs by law-enforcement agencies.
Be that as it may, MQM is facing a double whammy. On the one hand Altaf Hussain, veritably MQM’s ‘source’ of inspiration and sustenance, is battling against a number of criminal charges here and in the UK, including alleged links with RAW. On the other, the Rangers have virtually defanged MQM’s muscle power; opening the city up to its political rivals, particularly PTI and a nascent PSP, founded by former Karachi nazim, Mustafa Kamal, and other renegade MQM leaders.
Which raises the question: can PSP emerge as a viable alternative to MQM for Urdu-speaking communities among others? To make it, PSP has to play its cards right.
Though PSP has yet to draft its manifesto, its current strategy is, manifestly, to take advantage of a beleaguered MQM. Thus, PSP is shoring up support by enlisting MQM’s disgruntled MPs and ranks. It is showing ethnic affinity with Mohajirs by demanding that the government announce a general amnesty for MQM’s ‘misled’ workers, as it did for Baloch insurgents. And it is wooing the propertied and business classes, by promising to rid the city of political violence and crime.
To achieve even a measure of success, however, PSP needs to cross many a barrier. First, party head Mustafa Kamal must establish his credentials as a political leader beyond that of an able city nazim. Second, he must debunk the perception that PSP is an ‘establishment-sponsored’ and ‘media-driven’ party. Third, he must shun or at least clear the names of party stalwarts who carry a shady record. Finally, while exploiting the ‘ills and failings’ of Altaf Hussain may be politics, sustaining a political movement requires a lot more intrinsic energy and moral force.
Jamaat-e-Islami, and later MQM-H, committed this same folly. They failed to generate a kinetic force specific to their own programmes by being exclusively fixated on MQM. PTI, on the other hand, achieved considerable success in Karachi by projecting its own programme while simultaneously exposing MQM’s excesses. PSP may do well to take a leaf out of PTI’s book — its current ally, and potential foe.
The writer is a lawyer and academic.
Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2016