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On its 33rd Foundation Day, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement faces a unique reality: instead of consolidating political gains made since its inception in 1984, the ‘Mohajir’ bloc stands more divided today than ever before. Three parties have been carved out of one and each enjoys varying levels of influence and associations in Karachi. It is safe to say that unlike last year, when the Foundation Day public gathering drew the largest-ever audience at an MQM event, the celebrations will be muted this year.

And perhaps, there is little reason to celebrate. The Urdu-speaking constituents in Karachi are at risk of being under-represented in the ongoing census but beyond rhetoric, neither of the MQM factions has the strategy or the strength to find redress and justice for them. On the ground, irregularities have been reported in house listing, not only from low-income settlements but also from affluent, settled localities. In many cases, the census staff is filling out forms with pencils — thereby fanning allegations that data will be fudged at some stage.

Ever since Altaf Hussain’s Aug 22 incendiary speech outside the Karachi Press Club, the MQM has been forced to stand face-to-face with its demons, both internal and external. Its reliance on staying in power was its currency of political negotiation but that has seemingly withered away in the wake of the Rangers-led Karachi operation.

As a result, perhaps one of the biggest dilemmas that the MQM finds itself in today is its dependence on the PPP to give it an inch to manoeuvre. It is arguably the first time since the days of retired General Pervez Musharraf that the MQM has been put in a position to beg for its rights — for the MQM voter, this is a sign of weakness, one brought about by the dissociation of the MQM-Pakistan from Altaf Hussain.

In principle, the MQM-P is a new entity, with its separate constitution, party flag and leadership structure. But the underlying assumption of all statements made from the party is that there is no split within the MQM. There is the assertion that there is only one MQM, the one which is operating “on ground” and with some degree of freedom. There is mention that the ‘London Tola’ is misreading politics and acting in selfishness and haste. There too are suggestions that there are more first-generation leaders of the party who command more loyalty at this point in time than Altaf. The sum of all parts, in essence.

Local government has historically been the MQM’s instrument for internal reorganisation. The last time they had power in local government was under Mustafa Kamal, when the party unveiled a charter to give itself a makeover and indeed to transform the city too.

But the local government of today is limp, powerless and authority-less. In the words of Mayor Wasim Akhtar, even removing garbage from the streets is a task that they [MQM-P] have had to fight for.

The fact that the mayor does not enjoy centralised control of utilities has essentially crippled operations — there is far too great a communications gap between various arms of the local departments for things to run efficiently. But equally, the MQM stands in absolute organisational disarray across both the Altaf-led and Farooq Sattar-led factions, and that too has shown in the KMC’s performance till now.

But these everyday dynamics tend to pale in comparison when the MQM’s internal politics are considered. The Sattar-led MQM is a party that craves respectability — for itself and its constituents, an upper-middle class demographic, which seems to have had enough of the baggage associated with Mr Hussain.

There is also a class element at play: the MQM-P’s rhetoric is widely popular in settled, affluent areas — traditionally not the MQM’s core constituencies. Meanwhile, Altaf retains his hold over less affluent areas and less privileged citizens. The MQM-P is therefore a party that signifies Mohajir representation rather than Mohajir nationalism.

On the other hand, Altaf’s moves to reclaim his party are in full swing. His loyalists still believe that those who laid their lives for the party did so because they trusted the party founder who repaid their trust by taking the movement to its dizzying heights. They present the election of middle-class Mohajir citizens to parliament — none of whom were Altaf’s relatives — as proof that Altaf has the right vision. They also play up the notion of betrayal — those who were disloyal to the party and to its chief had eventually sold the “sacrifices” of those killed over the years for the cause.

Although the politics of ethno-nationalism received a brutal beating at the hands of former army chief Raheel Sharif, the MQM is the only one facing state violence in an urban, metropolitan centre. But there is a crucial difference between what happened to Sindhi nationalism after the demise of GM Syed and what is happening to the MQM now. In the case of the former, before Jeay Sindh parties could make a dent, the establishment engineered various splits and factions soon after GM Syed’s demise.

But in the case of the MQM, the establishment has erred in initiating splits in Altaf’s lifetime.

The story of Altaf’s unmaking has undoubtedly involved the collusion of some of Altaf’s children — complicit in the eyes of many as having been party to the minus-Altaf plan, in providing fodder to put the MQM chief on a media trial, and in their inability to speak up for the ordinary Mohajir and MQM worker. But the story of the MQM’s rapid resurgence involves the patriarch emerging out of the shadows to manipulate the ordinary Mohajir constituent’s emotion at will. It is this ability of Altaf’s which gives him confidence that his people will always stand by him. Some of his children might have become disobedient but there are many more still revering him as father.

Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2017