Illustration by Feica
Illustration by Feica

There is more than just one lasting legacy of Mustafa Kamal’s tenure as mayor of Karachi. The many flyovers, underpasses and roads constructed under his gaze, new provisions for civic amenities, new parks and entertainment spaces ... for a certain kind of voter, there is great romance associated with the image of Kamal.

Once touted as the eventual heir to Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) founder Altaf Hussain, Kamal slowly distanced himself from the party back in 2013 after tendering his resignation as a senator. Officially at least, Kamal had taken a leave from the party to tend to his wife’s health. He would later settle in Dubai and work for the multinational firm Abraaj. Once the great new hope of the MQM, the beloved former mayor’s absence from politics gave rise to many uncomfortable questions.

And so, on the morning of March 3, 2016, as Kamal returned to Karachi and called a press conference for later that afternoon, the rumour mill went into overdrive. Was it the return of the MQM’s prodigal son or was the former mayor going his separate way? Would he lift the lid on why he left politics and his disagreements with Altaf Hussain? Or would he strengthen the hands of those MQM leaders who had been arguing for reform within the party?

The former Karachi mayor’s Pak Sarzameen Party entered the fray with much fanfare but finds itself in an existential crisis after MQM-Pakistan dissociated itself from Altaf Hussain

By evening that day, there were no confusions left: Mustafa Kamal had arrived to challenge Altaf Hussain.

Kamal held the MQM founder responsible for having dragged an educated community into a pit of violence and crime. He accused Altaf of being a RAW agent. He distanced himself from ethno-nationalist politics, presenting instead a more pan-ethnic appeal. And he wanted a ban on the MQM.

“I thought my security guards would abandon me after the [first] press conference, because challenging Altaf Hussain in Karachi means certain death,” says Kamal while talking to Dawn at Pakistan House, his party’s headquarters in Karachi’s upmarket area of PECHS.

At the March 3 press conference, Kamal was flanked by another former stalwart of the MQM, Anis Qaimkhani. Although Qaimkhani did not say a word at the presser, his mere presence was enough to convey the message that the new party was not simply an isolated endeavour of a dynamic former mayor. The duo had a well-constructed plan, certain preparations had already been carried out in the background, and it was now time to head to the battleground.

Initiative gained, initiative lost

From the start, Kamal presented a vision of a party that would espouse everything good with the MQM but shed itself of the baggage traditionally associated with it.

The PSP was not going to be a party restricted to Urdu-speaking and other Mohajir constituents in a few cities of Sindh; it was going to have broad-based appeal across the country. The PSP was about removing the labels of violence and savagery associated with the MQM’s politics; it was going to provide legitimacy and respectability to politics practised by Mohajir representatives.

But even as Kamal points to the 2018 polls as the true gauge of PSP’s strength, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the PSP has handed back the initiative that it enjoyed when it first broke on to the scene.

Back then, the PSP had managed to drag the MQM into a tit-for-tat joust: if the PSP was announcing the joining of former MQM legislators, activists and APMSO workers, the MQM was publicising those who were joining its ranks from other parties. If the PSP was going to Hyderabad or Mirpurkhas, so was the MQM. And so on.

But the events that have unfolded since August 22, 2016 — from Altaf Hussain’s anti-Pakistan diatribe to Dr Farooq Sattar’s dissociation from the MQM’s International Secretariat in London, and the formation of MQM-Pakistan as a separate and distinct entity — seem to have pushed the PSP into an existential crisis.

PSP versus MQM-Pakistan

Since the very first day, Kamal’s attacks were all directed at MQM founder Altaf Hussain and some of his London associates. Removing Altaf from the picture was the raison d’être for the PSP’s formation. But then not only was Altaf dislodged by Dr Farooq Sattar but MQM-Pakistan also maintained the narrative of the struggle and empowerment of Urdu-speakers.

If there is no Altaf Hussain or London in the picture, what’s the fight all about?

“Dr Farooq Sattar is like a peasant whose feudal lord has used his name to complete some paperwork,” says Kamal. He refuses to believe the fact that Sattar is truly the new chief of MQM-Pakistan. “I agree with what the London leadership is saying that MQM is Altaf Hussain and Altaf Hussain is MQM.”

The former Karachi mayor points to the results of the recent bypolls in Gadap Town — a locality on the outskirts of the city — as proof that without Hussain, the MQM-Pakistan will struggle to make a mark.

“Poll results show that the traditional MQM voter did not bother to come out and vote. So, MQM-Pakistan has been rejected by its voters,” argues Kamal. He adds that unless MQM lawmakers abandon the party and create something new, he won’t believe them. “They should resign and prove their mettle without Altaf Hussain.”

The irony of the situation should not be lost on anyone. From attacking Altaf Hussain, Kamal has been reduced to saying exactly what Altaf Hussain’s acolytes are saying about the new MQM dispensation in Pakistan.

Without a doubt, the PSP has been pushed into a corner by Dr Farooq Sattar’s ascension as the new MQM chief. With Sattar successfully playing the good Mohajir card, the PSP is forced to rely on the goodwill generated by Kamal during his tenure as mayor. From setting the pace, the PSP is now reacting to situations — a sure-fire path to a party falling into irrelevance.

The irony of the situation should not be lost on anyone. From attacking Altaf Hussain, Kamal has been reduced to saying exactly what Altaf Hussain’s acolytes are saying about the new MQM dispensation in Pakistan. Without a doubt, the PSP has been pushed into a corner by Dr Farooq Sattar’s ascension as the new MQM chief.

Mid-level leaders in both MQM-Pakistan and PSP separately claim that there are senior leaders on both sides who are trying to broker a truce and ultimately a merger. “Is there a possibility of the two new factions being able to sit on the same table?” I ask Kamal.

The former mayor says his doors are open for all political workers but adds that he won’t budge from his position. “They can come and join us anytime,” he says with a smile.

The central reason for the gulf between MQM-Pakistan and the PSP are two lobbies who have opposed each other over operational matters during their time together in the MQM. On the MQM-Pakistan side are Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui and Aamir Khan while on the PSP side are Qaimkhani and Anees Ahmed (Advocate).

But while the MQM-Pakistan can still stake claim over the use of Mohajir imagery and slogans, Kamal’s pan-ethnic, pan-faith rhetoric has few buyers till now. The voter expected to be attracted by Kamal’s message is perhaps the same that was attracted to General Pervez Musharraf and later to Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

On May 27, 2015, Kamal had reportedly met Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf in Dubai. It is claimed the former president asked him to join the All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) but Kamal did not take up the offer saying that he had no plans to re-enter politics.

A year later, on May 25, 2016, Kamal convened a press conference in which 17 members of APML joined his party, including Asia Ishaq, the former APML spokesperson. The move did not attract much media attention since APML has been politically inactive and irrelevant ever since Musharraf left the country. But it provided clues as to how the PSP intended to shape its politics in Karachi.

Relying on street muscle

The brains and brawns of the PSP are Qaimkhani and Anees Ahmed (Advocate), once known as “two hands of Altaf Bhai.” Their trusted lieutenants include former provincial minister Raza Haroon and Wasim Aftab. Each of these men enjoyed a certain influence in the MQM, either ideological or organisational.

An allegation consistently thrown at the PSP is that it is backed by the security establishment. This claim is founded in the immunity being enjoyed by former MQM activists wanted in criminal cases whose sins were supposedly wiped off as soon as they joined the PSP.

In August, several dozen missing activists of MQM announced joining the PSP. Then, on 28 August, Asif Hasnain, an MQM MNA, was held at the Karachi Airport by security forces. He announced he was joining the PSP in a press conference the very next day. Given such circumstantial evidence, the MQM has accused law enforcement agencies of blackmailing their activists to join the PSP.

There are former foes gathered together in the lower ranks of the PSP too and, interestingly, their enmity with the MQM stretches back to when the current PSP leadership was running the show. These men include gangsters who had last worked with either the Awami National Party (ANP) or the PPP-backed Aman Committee.

One name that stands out is Tariq Tareen, a former ANP worker notorious for his activities in Karachi’s Gulistan-i-Jauhar and Sohrab Goth areas. A number of mid-level Lyari gangsters have also joined the PSP, which further reinforces PSP’s street strength.

The PSP is relying on an understanding shaped over decades of MQM conditioning that street power and the ability to mobilise workers within a matter of minutes count first and foremost in Karachi. In the long run, however, the options for PSP seem limited.

The challenge for Kamal till now has been to ensure that those who defected from the MQM do not return. In case large numbers do return to the MQM, it will prove that not only did those workers not find enough bite in their new party but also that the older, established players are more viable options for politics in Karachi.

When it comes to street muscle, which is an undeniable and potent ingredient of Karachi’s politics, the PSP has plenty of potent arrows in its bow. But when it comes to an accompanying political narrative, the party is woefully lacking.

There is no doubt that Mustafa Kamal is eyeing the 2018 general elections and his preparations are already underway. But while the PSP promised a complete break from the philosophy and practices of Altaf Hussain’s MQM, it is in danger of becoming more of the same.

The writer is a freelance journalist and tweets @AmmarShahbazi


In the October 2, 2016 issue of Images on Sunday, the article ‘Is our education system driving children to commit suicide?’ was written by Erum Hafeez. The byline was inadvertently omitted, which is regretted.—Ed

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 9th, 2016



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