MQM without Altaf Hussain?

Altaf Bhai may have become Altaf Saheb overnight but he still casts a long shadow over the organisation he founded.
Published March 18, 2018

This article was originally published in Dawn on Sep 11, 2016.

Altaf Bhai may have become Altaf Saheb overnight and lost the veto powers he had under the MQM’s unamended constitution, but he still casts a long shadow over the organisation he founded. Can the party survive dissociated from his cult of personality or will it tear itself apart?

Will the cult of Altaf allow MQM to survive?

by Ahmed Yusuf and Ammar Shahbazi

Peak Power: Altaf Hussain at the famous Nishtar Park rally in 1986 -Photo by White Star
Peak Power: Altaf Hussain at the famous Nishtar Park rally in 1986 -Photo by White Star

Just five months ago, on March 18, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) celebrated its 32nd Foundation Day amid rumours that party chief Altaf Hussain had passed away. The MQM was already on the back foot, reeling from the Karachi Operation at home and investigations into the activities of their party chief abroad. Many established faces in the senior leadership seemed to have left the country; most middle-tier leaders had been thrust into the first-tier.

There was a by-election on the way too, for a national and provincial seat from Karachi. The previous incumbents on both seats from MQM had tendered resignations to take up important positions in the newly-elected local government.

On the ground, the party organisation and administration at the time was being handled by the women’s wing since most men who’d step to the fore had either been arrested by the Rangers or implicated in alleged acts of sedition. There were few organisers and fewer workers to canvass as extensively as the MQM usually does. Finances for election activities were a major concern too, as the party scrambled to provide some form of social security to the families of MQM workers killed and incarcerated.

But the rumour of Altaf’s demise had caused panic among the rank and file of the party, snowballing into other tangential rumours. One concern at the unit level, for example, was whether a lookalike had been installed in his place and if pre-recorded speeches were being broadcast from London.

Although party officials scrambled to deny such rumours at the time, the 32nd Foundation Day event had gained significance among the MQM voter-base. With a broadcast ban on his appearance and speech, the event was the only way for the MQM constituent to establish, either way, whether Altaf Hussain were alive and well.

Funeral prays for MQM workers killed in Karachi -Photo by White Star
Funeral prays for MQM workers killed in Karachi -Photo by White Star

On the night, the public gathering drew in far greater numbers than the MQM had canvassed or prepared for; party officials later described attendance at the event as the largest-ever.

While MQM’s Deputy Convener Farooq Sattar addressed the audience, the lights suddenly were switched off. Attention turned towards the large screen erected behind him, which was carrying a live relay from the MQM Secretariat in London. Altaf Hussain had entered the building.

“As you can see, Altaf Hussain is on a ventilator,” joked Farooq Sattar from the dais as Altaf waved to the crowd on video link.

The image of Altaf Hussain — albeit a visibly frail one— transformed the event as the decibel levels inside Jinnah Ground went up a few notches. In his address too, Hussain was forthright with his supporters about the state of his health: “There were rumours about my death … I may not be in complete health but I am alive, breathing and can speak.”

The visuals broadcast by the MQM — from his arrival to the International Secretariat, him walking to the conference room, embracing leaders and workers, and taking his seat — were aimed at answering any and all propaganda. Altaf also cracked a few jokes and even broke into a dance. The audience might have arrived with questions about their leader; they were leaving with emphatic answers.

The Foundation Day public gathering carried the MQM past the by-elections with great ease. The victory provided much respite to the MQM. The party’s narrative of the Karachi Operation being targeted at them had prevailed. The MQM had won again without the need for much canvassing or mobilisation, and without any allegations of rigging through the use of force. Its voter had observed that the party was in trouble and had responded accordingly.

Five months later, this near total deference and adulation of the MQM’s founder seems to have disappeared, at least among the ranks of the party’s leadership in Pakistan. The cause is, of course, the near-unanimous condemnation of his Aug 22 speech.

##Tehreeki workers say that their support is contingent on Sattar receiving Altaf’s blessings. “We trust that Farooq Bhai will not betray the movement or Altaf Bhai,” says another tehreeki organiser. “But ultimately, Altaf Bhai has to make the final call and that’s the one we shall follow.”

In response to hundreds of party workers still allegedly ‘missing’, Altaf accused the state of being anti-people and terrorist. To the shock of many present and, later, the wider public, he raised anti-Pakistan slogans and exhorted his charges to attack media offices if they wanted their voices to be heard. The state’s reaction to both actions was swift: the party’s headquarters Nine-Zero was sealed, party leaders were arrested, and a door-to-door search was initiated by law enforcement to nab key activists. In the face of a strong nationwide reaction to the speech and scores of its sector-offices being demolished and sealed, party leaders were forced to denounce their Quaid’s speech not only in the media but also in parliament and to amend the MQM constitution to remove Altaf Hussain’s veto power over all decisions. Even the MQM’s flags were cut up to remove the name of the expatriate leader from them.

Today, the parliamentary arm of the MQM stands divorced from its founder and leader. In the calculations of the Farooq Sattar-led newly christened MQM-Pakistan (MQM-P), Altaf is a political liability. He is no longer the revered Bhai, he is Altaf Saheb.

In the imagination of the MQM voter, the legend of Altaf has been constructed over four decades and many times, not entirely through the vehicles of fear and harassment. Efficient delivery of services and patronage and upward social mobility have equally been critical to the MQM’s mandate and indeed to the legend of Altaf Hussain delivering on his promises to the ordinary MQM voter.

But Altaf Hussain has also been beset by serious problems over the last few years. There has been relentless pressure exerted by the army establishment, which has played up in the media its perceptions that the London Secretariat has been hand-in-glove with enemies of the state, particularly Indian intelligence agencies. There have been times before when the establishment turned on Hussain — in particular the 1992-96 crackdown which also saw the formation of the Haqiqi faction — only to re-seek his support when circumstances changed. But this time the establishment seems adamant that the London-based leader is completely unacceptable. In addition, cases in London related to money-laundering and the murder of former MQM ideologue Imran Farooq, in which the MQM founder is a suspect, have also tarnished perceptions, especially among younger supporters who grew up after he left Pakistan in the early 1990s. Hussain’s mounting health issues and his own distancing from his cadre over two and half decades of self-exile have also exacerbated the disconnect.

But such is the weight of the personality of Altaf Hussain on the politics of the MQM that it still took two press conferences for Sattar to dissociate the party from its iconic founder and sole ideologue. The first press conference was aimed at the MQM worker base to allay any concerns of an internal coup; the second was for common consumption and to lay the groundwork for the MQM’s readjustment into the national mainstream.

Sattar was flanked in the press conferences by all the top leadership of the party within Pakistan, sending out a message that, at least for the time being, everyone was on the same page.

The question remains, however: can the MQM exist without the cult of Altaf Hussain?

Tanzeem vs Tehreek

MQM’s electoral symbol, the kite, is currently buffeted by strong winds -Photo by Shakeel Adil / White Star
MQM’s electoral symbol, the kite, is currently buffeted by strong winds -Photo by Shakeel Adil / White Star

In order to understand this, one needs to understand MQM’s structure. All jobs related to the everyday running of the party — voter feedback and complaints, public dealings, resolution of petty disputes etc— were carried out through the party’s tanzeemi division. But this is not the only level at which the MQM operates.

The other is called the tehreeki division, which assumes the responsibility of furthering the cause of the social movement for Mohajir empowerment. The crucial difference between the two wings is that while the tanzeemi division operates within the framework of Pakistani nationalism, there are no such limitations on the tehreeki division, which prioritises the Mohajir people (qaum or nation) and the objectives of Mohajir empowerment over and above loyalty with any state or party.

The supremacy of tehreek (movement) over tanzeem (organisation) in MQM culture can be gauged by the title accorded to Altaf Hussain: Quaid-i-Tehreek (Leader of the Movement). Altaf is also said to originally belong to the tehreeki division. Unless deputed to become public faces, leaders of the tehreeki wing still operate in secrecy; its members too remain away from the public eye since anonymity and confidentiality are essential facets of tehreeki politics.

Much like the structure of communist party politburos, the composition of the Rabita (Liaison) Committee — the overarching guidance body — ensured that the tehreeki arm would dominate debates and discussions, and gently convince the others to follow their lead. Some also allege that the party’s militant wing was operated by the tehreeki arm of the MQM and is controlled directly from London.

Even as the MQM tried to broaden its appeal beyond native Urdu-speakers, it retained its ideological undercurrents. The ideology of Mohajir nationalism rests with the tehreeki division of the party — a cause that continues even today, with various study circles, discussion and talks organised on door-to-door basis in the party’s core constituencies. It is also for this reason that despite not being involved in the day-to-day affairs of the party, those associated with tehreeki politics have historically remained adamant that the ‘real’ party lies with them since they are the keepers of the ideology.

The implication of this message is simple: were the MQM to be disbanded, for example, the tehreekis will be able to rebuild the party afresh since they have been preparing for this eventuality for four decades. That they’ll be able to do so from the shadows adds to the potency of this wing.

In the past, such a party structure allowed the MQM to prepare and respond to various situations based on whether it needed to exert hard power or soft in that particular instance. But today, the same structure holds the potential to tear apart the united front that the party is putting on in Karachi — if Altaf decides to react.

In both the tehreeki and tanzeemi wings of the party, lower-ranked workers are still unsure if Sattar is a permanent fixture or if the party is playing out a long, drawn-out game for its survival. Sacrificing the sole ideologue could well be the last throw of the dice for the party’s survival and the core MQM constituent understands this better than others. But a complete divorce?

“The fact that on the first day Farooq Bhai had sent Altaf Bhai on medical leave said everything that needed to be said for the MQM worker,” says one senior worker associated with the party’s tehreeki operations. “That communicated the message to us, Farooq Bhai did not disown Altaf Bhai but that there are others in the London Secretariat that the Pakistan party has issues with.”

Indeed, it was with great pains that Farooq Sattar emphasised the word “disconnect” at his second press conference in relation to the MQM’s relationship with the London Secretariat. Disowning the legacy of Altaf Hussain altogether is a different matter— something that no MQM leader is willing to do.

“Altaf Bhai was the founder of the All-Pakistan Mojahir Students Organisations (APMSO), he was the founder of the MQM, he gave the city a 28-year-old mayor in Farooq Sattar … these were all things that nobody could have imagined were possible. Not a single soul can take this legacy away from him,” says MQM-P spokesperson Aminul Haq.

Over in the tanzeemi section of the party, there is anxiety and trepidation over any reaction from London. This dread exists despite the seemingly unquestioned authority that Sattar is currently enjoying as the chief of the MQM-P. “The party is now under Farooq Bhai’s control, and it was proved on August 24, when nobody from the MQM defected during the mayoral elections,” says Haq. “We had a meeting of all our elected members — from Senators to UC [urban council] chairpersons — and together, they have made changes to the party’s constitution. This is a collective decision, not one person’s call.”

The party’s public relations machinery, meanwhile, maintains that all is united and the party is preparing to reorganise with renewed and greater vigour. Among the changes made is the return of Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui in the Rabita Committee; he was last removed after another organisational disagreement with London.

Despite these changes, tehreeki workers say that their support is contingent on Sattar receiving Altaf’s blessings. “We trust that Farooq Bhai will not betray the movement or Altaf Bhai,” says another tehreeki organiser. “But ultimately, Altaf Bhai has to make the final call and that’s the one we shall follow.”

While Pakistani media is banned from carrying Altaf’s statements, Wasay Jalil, former spokesperson of the party and now based in the London Secretariat, tweeted that no ‘minus-one formula’ would be acceptable and that the MQM ‘united under Altaf Hussain’ condemned the resolution presented in the National Assembly. Although the London Secretariat has attempted to keep Altaf Hussain away from public appearances, there were also media reports that Altaf Hussain had himself termed the moves in Pakistan as ‘treasonous’.

Were such an argument to be extended, the notion of “betrayal” — of the movement, the party, and Altaf Hussain — carries a significant price. “Jo Quaid ka ghaddar hai … woh maut ka haqdaar hai,” goes the slogan.

The men who would be Quaid

At the heart of the questions regarding the future of the MQM is who can possibly replace Altaf Hussain as the supreme leader of the party. This is a question that has predated the current crisis, mostly predicated on the leader’s failing health and fallout from the ongoing cases in London. Simply put, most believe that no one within the MQM commands the same kind of authority as Altaf Hussain. Some argue this is entirely by design.

But there are three names currently in the mix to take over the leadership of MQM-P: Farooq Sattar, Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui and Amir Khan.

Farooq Sattar

Farooq Sattar
Farooq Sattar

As one of the few surviving and active members of the first generation leaders of the MQM, and having steered the MQM through troubled waters time and again, Farooq Sattar is the soft face of the MQM and manages to evoke trust in the MQM voter base more than other leaders.

On the positive side, Sattar is the poster child of all that the MQM has achieved over four decades: middle-class political empowerment, upward social mobility, greater political respectability and clout, and of course, a voice against the “oppressor” — whichever form that it may take. Over the years, and particularly in moments of crisis, Sattar is sought to manage public perceptions about the party.

Even in dissociating the party from Altaf, Sattar managed to maintain civility and respect for the MQM founder — something that PSP chief Mustafa Kamal failed to adhere to. In the current climate, respectability seems to be the currency of politics in Karachi and Sattar has reserves of those.

But what makes him a significant heir to Altaf Hussain is the link that he forms between the tehreeki and tanzeemi arms of the party. Among first-generation MQM leaders and cadres, he is a mentor and teacher to both tehreeki and tanzeemi activists. Despite not being an ideologue, he is respected for his control over ideological matters and those of the organisation — not many are as adept at handling both spheres as well as Sattar.

Sattar’s weakness as a candidate arises precisely from being the party’s soft face. It is not at all clear that he would be able to rein in the hardline elements within his party, were they to rebel. And his acceptability to the security establishment may also be used against him.

Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui

Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui
Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui

Sattar’s direct rival for new party chief, Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui, is considered to be the MQM’s Mr Clean since he boasts an unblemished record. He is known in inner MQM circles as the “perfect ideological worker.” He is the longest serving chairman of the All Pakistan Mohajir Student Organisation (APMSO) and was heading the student organisation during the tumultuous early ‘90s.

A medical doctor by training, Siddiqui was made a federal minister for industries for his services as APMSO chief and held other important positions in the party. Sources say that he was settled in USA and was assigned to mobilise the expat community as the patron-in-chief of MQM North America, when Altaf Hussian picked him to play a crucial role in Karachi. He arrived few months before the 2013 elections and was elected from Hyderabad on an MQM’s ticket.

What goes against him are continued disagreements with members of the London Secretariat. Despite his stature in the party, he has been in and out of Rabita Committees because of his strong opinions. Unlike Sattar, he also is not identified as the soft face of the MQM.

Aamir Khan

Aamir Khan
Aamir Khan

The third man in the running is Aamir Khan, whose job is to enforce discipline in the ranks of the party. He was among those who had formed the Haqiqi splinter group with Afaq Ahmed in the early 1990s but returned to the party fold once he was released from prison and begged Altaf Hussain’s forgiveness.

Aamir’s return owed much to the efforts of Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui, who at the time had been left exasperated by the machinations of then Deputy Convenor Anis Qaimkhani and his coterie. Khan’s return was to offset the influence that Qaimkhani had begun to enjoy in the MQM.

Aamir’s presence is also crucial in the matrix of street power in Karachi. On separate occasions, he has been able to woo workers from the Afaq Ahmed-led Mohajir Qaumi Movement into Muttahida. While there is talk of a merger between the two factions, Aamir Khan is the obvious link between the two parties.

But behind the scenes, the coming together of the two parties was dependent on the London Secretariat, which was not too keen on this amalgamation. Their suspicion was that Afaq’s men wanted to only enter the party to capture the leadership positions. In fact, after one recent skirmish between rival activists in Jaffer Tayyar Society, the London Secretariat issued a press release to categorically term Afaq’s men as “terrorists.”

This doused any talk of a merger at the time, but with Altaf seemingly out of the picture, the option to merge with Haqiqi is back on the table. Were the MQM to go down this route, there will certainly be greater weightage accorded to Aamir Khan’s candidature.

Aamir Khan’s strength is in his ability to control the hard core militants of the party but his past as a former defector and his very association with the hardliners may not be what the average constituent wants from a future leader.

The Wildcards

There other wildcards in the picture, including Karachi’s new mayor-from-jail Waseem Akhtar, whose association with Altaf Hussain and his tehreeki connections strengthen his case as a loyalist. But what goes against him are allegations of terrorism — made throughout his political career though yet still unproven. In the current climate, such disrespectability is not tolerable to the powers that be and Akhtar is likely to stay in prison at least till the MQM’s leadership issues are somewhat settled.

The longtime Sindh Governor, Ishrat-ul-Ibad, who resigned from the MQM to take up his official post also has an aura of elder statesman, and enjoys the respect of the older MQM supporters. He is obviously acceptable to the establishment as well. But Altaf Hussain’s pronouncements in recent years against him might make his job much harder were he to be thrust into the job of leading the MQM.

Could any of these potential replacements for Altaf Hussain ever unite the MQM behind him and recast the party as a mainstream political force acceptable to the establishment? Or will the party inevitably splinter after its cult-leader leaves the scene? The answer to this depends entirely on what London’s next move will be. If, as is widely expected, Altaf Hussain refuses to relinquish immediate control and reasserts his leadership, MQM’s future is likely to be one of more suffering.

Turf troubles

MQM is under pressure from rivals such as PSP and ASWJ

PSP’s Mustafa Kamal
PSP’s Mustafa Kamal

MQM’s current crisis is not just an internal one of leadership. It is being buffeted not only by pressure from the security establishment but also from rivals attempting to snatch its control over its primary turf in Karachi as well.

In particular, the most potent rivals currently are the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) and the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), whose politics on the street has flourished ever since the start of the Karachi Operation.

PSP was counting on support from low-ranked MQM activists, who had enjoyed benefits during Mustafa Kamal’s tenure as mayor. One scheme in particular was crucial to his support: the resettlement of poor Mohajir families. Through a special undeclared unit called the ‘Abadkari Cell’, Kamal sought to provide a low-cost housing scheme for poor Mohajir families. He managed to settle Urdu-speaking households in areas with mixed populations; this allowed the MQM to reinforce and sometimes re-engineer their vote bank in various constituencies. This was besides the hundreds of jobs he created for Mohajir youth in various city government-run departments.

The PSP also enjoyed the benefits of pressure being exerted by the Rangers on the MQM. Within the MQM, the PSP is referred to as a “laundry party” — those with criminal histories can emerge as respectable citizens if they join Mustafa Kamal’s party.

PSP was actually dealt a blow by the creation of the MQM-P and its dissociation with Altaf Hussain, despite PSP leader Mustafa Kamal’s earlier glee at the latter’s Aug 22 speech which seemed to confirm all of his accusations against the self-exiled leader. With PSP’s raison d’être being attacks on the person of Altaf Hussain, Farooq Sattar ascension as the new chief of MQM removes the need for any PSP-like entity.

Although the PSP managed to make some inroads at the grassroots level, many of those who defected to the PSP had already begun returning to the MQM after last Eid — much before Altaf’s diatribe at the Karachi Press Club. One of the key reasons for these returns was said to be PSP leader Anis Qaimkhani’s arrest in a case pertaining to providing treatment and shelter to alleged terrorists, although conspiracy theorists also claimed that he was sent to jail to liaison with other activists.

The ASWJ, meanwhile, has been an older and more potent thorn for the MQM and the two have been battling for turf much as MQM earlier battled the Sunni Tehrik and Pushtuns backed by the Awami National Party.

When Altaf suspended Anis Qaimkhani and his coterie, lower-ranked followers of Qaimkhani joined the ASWJ, formerly known as the Sipah Sahaba Pakistan. “They had various offers from different quarters,” says one source from the tanzeemi arm of the MQM, “but they went where they found some ideological attraction. That was Sipah. These men would openly discuss takfir [labelling others apostates] within the party and whether it was justified to kill the Shia in Karachi.”

The common perception within the MQM till then was that the Shia dominated influential positions in the party structure. The theory was backed by the MQM’s partiality towards the now-obscure Sipah Mohammad Pakistan (SMP); young members would often also moonlight for the SMP while working for the MQM.

Most mid-tier leaders were aware of this practice, but since it did not threaten the MQM at any level, they were allowed to do so. At the higher echelons, the SMP was seen as a Shia counter to the Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen (MWM) — the Shia clerics party which had begun to assert itself in Karachi —as well as against the ASWJ. Together, these factors combined to create the perception that MQM is a “pro-Shia” party among some hardline constituents with a sectarian bent.

With such potent opponents, willing to fight the MQM through the ballot box and on the street, there are many delicate calculations that are being made by the MQM today. Without their founder and unquestioned uniter, the MQM is without a doubt handicapped in many ways. But this complex web of what is at stake is also an indication that politics in Pakistan is never black and white.

Ahmed Yusuf is a member of staff. He tweets @ASYusuf Ammar Shahbazi is a freelance journalist.
He tweets @AmmarShahbazi

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 11th, 2016