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MQM at the crossroads

Updated August 24, 2016

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The inevitable moment has finally arrived yet there is a feeling of foreboding. Altaf Hussain’s state of mind was no secret, especially to party insiders, but when Farooq Sattar said openly what his colleagues had been saying in private for years, he brought the party to a crossroads that carries as much promise as danger.

Even by the erratic standards of Mr Hussain, the rambling tirade he delivered on Monday night set a new low in Pakistani politics. Besides, it was clear beyond doubt that the man who ruled Karachi via remote control for almost a quarter of a century was now totally disconnected from the realities his party is facing, a bit like those in history who went down shouting orders at armies that did not exist.

Beyond the speech and the mob action it unleashed, the events that have been set into motion as a result of the incendiary language and personal insults can do far more lasting damage if the right assessment is not made of the moment and its true import.

Given the changes that a clean break with London in the running of the MQM operation will bring, it would be a grave mistake to respond reflexively and emotionally. The situation demands a measured and discerning response, and egos must be kept out of the calculus.

No matter what the provocation, it should not be forgotten that the MQM is the fifth largest political party in the country, gaining almost 2.5 million votes in the 2013 general election and coasting through subsequent by-elections too.

Today’s local bodies elections will show what the voters think of this episode, and we will see how far the party’s base will be swayed by the tsunami of abuse it has been subjected to in the media since Monday night, and the consequent split effected by its Karachi leadership at their historic announcement on Tuesday.

This is the key to framing the response. Our history contains a number of other examples of moments when a political party has been vilified to the point of becoming radioactive in the public discourse without any regard for its roots amongst the masses, and in each case the elimination of the political leadership of the party yielded consequences that were worse than whatever choices the party was hoisting in the political space. The MQM can be larger than Altaf Hussain and even if he does not realise this, the rest of us should.

The Rangers have done an admirable job in neutralising the law and order challenge that the MQM has posed in the past, and proof of this is in the diminutive attempt at arson and destruction that the party tried to mount following the powerful incitement from its London-based leadership.

But having done this, it is also important to bear in mind that the Rangers’ mission must make way for the political process to resume and enable the voters to decide their own future. That moment is now, given the historic split in the party leadership and the looming shadow of an election.

This is the time to step back and let a delicate transition unfold. The Karachi leadership that disowned its London links must be given a chance to pull the party behind themselves and gain the trust of their voters.

The moment carries its dangers. All eyes are now turning to Altaf Hussain, seemingly alone and isolated in London. But will the cadres take their cue from him or the new leadership that is struggling to be born in the new circumstances? With whom will the voters go?

Mr Hussain may be down but he’s not out yet, and if he decides to fight back, the future of peace in Karachi could hang in the balance. He cannot regain his position but he can certainly punch out a number of lights on his way down, creating the risk of a renewed cycle of violence amidst rising factionalism.

It has taken a lot to bring the party to this crossroads; it should now be allowed to match its words with its deeds before anything else.

Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2016