Voh duur hai to kya hua
Dilon main hai basa hua [It matters not a jot that he is far away; he resides in people’s hearts]
The theme of this iconic slogan of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) of Altaf Hussain has pervaded Mohajir political and academic circles ever since the day Altaf was branded a traitor and put on mute. After all, the legend of Altaf Hussain has come to exist despite him being a leader-in-absentia for over two decades. And yet, in large parts of MQM imagination — as visible in the aftermath of August 22, 2016 — he has come to exist as the patriarch, complete with the violence associated with such a figure of respect/hate. He is the original ‘baap’ of Mohajir politics.
The morning of August 23, 2016 saw a divorce between the father and his estranged children. And with that, the political landscape of Karachi shifted dramatically away from the MQM. Its offices were razed or sealed, activists were on the run, and organisational set-up was in disarray. The new party that emerged, MQM-Pakistan (MQM-P), claimed to have no contact with Altaf nor be under his influence. Over time, those in leadership in the MQM-P have managed to establish this differentiation.
Suddenly Altaf had two adversaries, both of whom he branded “children of the establishment” — the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), led by Mustafa Kamal and the MQM-P, led first by Farooq Sattar and then by Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui. This was the minus-Altaf formula in a nutshell: isolate him, remove him from the picture, and pit him against his own.
Ever since, Mohajir circles have argued about whether his enforced absence will be sustainable. If he was kept away for long enough, and particularly off the screen, will he become irrelevant? How long will it take for his legend to be dampened? Is he the ultimate Sword of Damocles that needs to be hung over the MQM’s adversaries for Mohajir interests to be safeguarded?
For Altaf, turning the guns at [the MQM-P] keeps his legend alive, and indeed, his party alive. The logical extreme of this argument is that if the MQM-P does not exist, then neither does Altaf’s legend.
Part of the answer lies in him being part of the discussion even while being on mute.
Post August 22, grassroots cadres had been reeling in a state of confusion about whether Altaf is in any way connected to the MQM-P. Even London-based leaders began to distance themselves from him: Deputy Convenor Nadeem Nusrat and Rabita Committee member Wasay Jalil amongst them. Then there were whispers of Altaf’s alleged involvement in the Imran Farooq murder case. But slowly, as the confusion dissipated, it impacted the grassroots organisational strength of the MQM-P that is built at the mohalla-level. Simultaneously the defection of activists to the PSP and the Pakistan Peoples Party worked in Altaf’s favour. Were he around, went the argument, this would never, ever have happened.
In fact, these comparisons are a recurring theme in Mohajir politics — would the party be divided and in the doldrums if Altaf was still leading it?
The internal fissures in the MQM-P that have been played out publicly have prompted comparisons with the autocratic discipline maintained by Altaf. The lacklustre performance of the local government has been put into contrast by the two run under the gaze of Altaf. And the manner in which the PPP has sidelined the MQM-P has been juxtaposed against the MQM being part of the power matrix under Altaf.
The inevitable comparisons have benefitted Altaf. His relevance is, in part, related to him keeping himself in opposition to the MQM-P. Exposing their inadequacies sparks belief in what could have been, and dismay at what is. Altaf has already set the tone by boycotting the elections, arguing that the game has already been rigged. Any position taken by the MQM-P would be taken as a response to this position. But for Altaf, turning the guns at them keeps his legend alive and, indeed, his party alive.
The logical extreme of this argument is that if the MQM-P does not exist, then neither does Altaf’s legend. And so, his attacks on the MQM-P have been calibrated. Not enough to provoke extreme damage but enough to embarrass them in the eyes of his supporters. And with the MQM-P beset by internal crises, Altaf’s position has only become stronger.
The only way for the MQM-P to break this cycle is to show, somehow, that it has become a legitimate player in Mohajir representation in its own right. That it is not a party whose success depends on Altaf Hussain and constituents are responding to their vision of what the MQM ought to be. The elections have come at an opportune time. The MQM-P gets to show the wisdom in its decision to contest the elections and not ceding any political space to opponents. What better way to showcase their popularity among voters than having the evidence of numbers in votes?
This puts Altaf in a tricky position. A boycott position will only make an impact if significant numbers don’t vote for anyone. He’d have calculated the limitations of his loyalists in Karachi and Hyderabad, and whether the decimated organisational structure they have to contend with, will allow them to propagate his message as effectively as he’d want them to. If they are unable to do so, Altaf would have been set up for a mighty fall.
Till now, Altaf’s hard line is underpinned by his belief that a large number of loyalists still exist on the ground and organise in the shadows. There is the belief that the party’s name, flag and symbol (kite) all belong to him. And of course, that the vote-bank is all his.
But elections are a game of numbers. New constituencies dominated by the Urdu-speaking have been carved in such a way that there are more Urdu-speaking voters than before. And certainly, the MQM-P will manage to bag a chunk of Urdu-speaking votes from that pie. If numbers were a way of judging popularity, and if significant numbers say that the Urdu-speaking are voting for the MQM-P, then Altaf loses his standing and is only being set up for an embarrassment.
Altaf will argue that a numeric setback is expected but might well be temporary — that is the lesson that he has learnt from past experiences. He will point to how primitive communication means were when the party first came under attack. But long-distance relationships of this age, with little or no communication, ultimately tend to collapse in due time. Realities are often misread. The romance fades out. And chemistry turns into a chore. These elections will see Altaf make his mark with an absence of votes but the question really is: is Altaf still as “dilon main hai basa hua” for the ordinary voter as the slogan says?
Karachi’s Mohajir ‘vote bank’ was never homogenous to begin with, but is more splintered than ever before since the fragmentation of the MQM. Eos takes a look at leaders associated with secular Mohajir politics and what their prospects may be to influence voters in their favour
Khalid M. Siddiqui
Although he was one-third of the troika that decided after August 22, 2016, to dissociate the Pakistan party of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) from Altaf Hussain, Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui decided to sit in the shadows as Farooq Sattar attempted to steer the ship out of troubled waters. But he has been thrust into action once again, this time to steer the party out of its existential crisis.
The party Siddiqui inherited is different to the one that Farooq Sattar took charge of. For the most part, the MQM-P is now an entity without ideological confusions. The parting of ways with Altaf is permanent, Altaf loyalists have been pushed to the margins and, in some cases, pushed out altogether, and a new ruling hierarchy has emerged.
Arguably, the party that Siddiqui has inherited is in greater dire straits than the one that Sattar took over.
In large part, that is the outcome of the internal crises that the MQM-P has been beset with over the past six months. In what played out as a leadership tussle, the differences that were bubbling beneath the surface between those loyal to Altaf and those who wanted a clean break from him came to the fore. Although this infighting came about on the issue of Senate elections, it was also a representation of the bind that the MQM voter found themselves in: to support and rely on the MQM-P or to return to something familiar?
Then there is the question of the mohalla network that is the basis of MQM’s power in large parts of the city. This network was dismantled in the Karachi Operation. But while Altaf’s party has managed to find ways around these limitations, the MQM-P has been hamstrung by a lack of finances and space.
But what has also transpired over the past six months is further disintegration within the party, including in the All Pakistan Muttahida Students Organisation (APMSO), and a loss of confidence among comrades in each other. Allegations raised by both groups against each other and the deepening of existing fissures only served to distance the constituent from the party. And matters haven’t been helped by the dismal performance of the local government in Karachi that is being led by the MQM-P. And of course, the organisational structure of the party, including its mohalla network, is all in disarray.
Siddiqui’s leadership, therefore, depends on untangling these complications before forging ahead.
There are many factors going in favour of Siddiqui. First and foremost, as chief of the MQM-P, he retains the party’s flag and the symbol of kite. Second, he is a non-controversial figure and someone whose past has not been blemished by serious charges of criminal nature. Unlike Altaf, he presents himself as cultured and sophisticated. Unlike Sattar, he is consistent. Within the party, his tactical and policy nous is second to none. And unlike other MQM-P leaders, he is not tainted with allegations of having served the interests of the establishment.
But perhaps the most crucial element to Siddiqui’s leadership is that the promise of “collective wisdom” that was made by Farooq Sattar is now being upheld by him. In the aftermath of August 22, 2016, the consensus in the party was that decisions would now be made through a consultative process. The collective would decide on matters of larger (policy) interest, leaving the convener to present those decisions to the outside world.
In what became known as the ‘Bahadurabad faction’, the allegation was that Sattar had abolished the consultative process and was trying to run the party through ad hocism. And as Sattar took a step back, Siddiqui was thrust to the fore since cadres trusted him more than other candidates for convenor of the party.
But the ground realities that Siddiqui is contending with at this point in time are also not insignificant.
While the establishment in Karachi brought both warring groups in the MQM closer, pushing them not to boycott elections, support from the administration for the MQM-P has begun to dither as elections draw closer. Although Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) and their leader Mustafa Kamal is deemed close to some in the MQM-P leadership, PSP activists have been attacking MQM-P offices and activists in a manner reminiscent of Altaf’s undivided MQM.
Then there is the question of the mohalla network that is the basis of MQM’s power in large parts of the city. This network was dismantled in the Karachi Operation. But while Altaf’s party has managed to find ways around these limitations, the MQM-P has been hamstrung by a lack of finances and space. In this vacuum, parties such as the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) have benefitted since they have utilised the pulpit of the mosque to spread their message in neighbourhoods. With any party flags and banners being banned from the main roads, the MQM-P has struggled to adorn party flags in many mohallas because it has lost much of its manpower to other parties.
Third, it is for the first time in MQM history that candidates put up by the party for national and provincial polls have had to pay money from their pockets to contest elections. While this was an eventuality that could and should have been foreseen, there are voices within who have protested the emergence of a moneyed class within the party that is calling the shots. Even till this day, those associated with MQM politics call the party “a workers’ party” and the insinuation is that the party’s fundamentals have been compromised.
Fourth, the shadow cast by Altaf still hangs over the MQM-P. The greatest challenge for Siddiqui is to show that Altaf’s call to boycott the elections will not sway the ordinary MQM voter and that the MQM-P remains Karachi’s most popular party. Instead of focussing their energies on competing against other parties, the MQM-P has been forced to play the game that Altaf wants to play. This was also visible in the by-elections for a Karachi seat, PS-114, where the entire machinery of the MQM-P had been mobilised to counter the influence of Altaf in this constituency. Even as the MQM-P lost polls, many leaders claimed that the real victory was in bagging votes from areas deemed to be Altaf strongholds. This line, worryingly, is being repeated as national polls draw closer.
It is clear that these dichotomies cannot be untangled in a matter of days if they haven’t been untangled over many months. Siddiqui’s current stint as convener is one where the party is still in fire-fighting mode but trying to leave some mark on the elections in Karachi. The post-election period may see widespread and comprehensive changes in the MQM-P but, for the time being, Siddiqui is not a lone warrior.
Mustafa Kamal can be perceived in a number of ways.
The rebel and the good boy, for example. He was the first to rebel against Altaf Hussain, alleging that young, educated men like him were led astray and into the path of violence by the MQM chief. Good Bihari boys aren’t born like that.
Suddenly Kamal also became the flag-bearer of Pakistani nationalism, over and above the Mohajir nationalism that the MQM claims to represent. He brought prosperity to the city and that earned him much goodwill. He also had vision. His loyalists swear that he delivered on his promises, while in power and out of it, too. Kamal is also, therefore, the flag-bearer and bringer of prosperity.
He was hand-picked once by Altaf Hussain and once by the state. Clearly, there is something special in him that makes him ‘The Chosen One’.
But perhaps the most pertinent comparison is with the man whom he rebelled against: Altaf Hussain.
The iconic MQM anthem, Saathi, venerates Altaf as being the comrades’ comrade. One line says, “jo kehta hai woh karta hai” [what he says is what he does]. This line, in fact, captures the essence of the deification of Altaf.
Has Mustafa Kamal been able to do what he says he will be able to do? And has he been able to replace Altaf from people’s imagination?
On the surface, his thinly-attended rallies would indicate that the answer is no. But there is more to it than meet the eye.
The bulk of grassroots work carried out by Kamal’s party has been in two kinds of localities. First, localities where land was distributed according to the “china-cutting” rule. Many settled in these localities are former MQM activists, who benefited directly because of either Kamal or the party’s secretary-general, Anis Qaimkhani. The latter ruled the MQM’s organisational affairs in Karachi for a few years before he was sidelined. As beneficiaries of the system, many former MQM activists believe that indeed, Kamal has stayed good on his word.
Such benefits have not escaped the attention of the ordinary Urdu-speaking voter. In localities being dominated by the PSP these days, as well as in other low-income localities dominated by Urdu-speaking residents, the idea of someone handing them ownership rights to residential squatters — by hook or by crook — is reverberating among constituents. And since Kamal has been able to deliver before, the assumption there is that he’ll do so again.
The second type of locality where the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) has roots is the hardcore MQM areas, which produced the violent element in the party. These localities, Liaquatabad chief among them, have already been combed for the militant element. Many were put behind bars, their release only guaranteed if they signed the PSP’s membership form. Those who denied the condition being imposed on them returned with stories of heavy-handedness. And while the MQM-P was struggling to find a way out of its existential crisis, the PSP was pursuing cases of missing activists and having them released.
This has bred a certain loyalty for the PSP among these men.
Together, the grassroots force of the MQM comprises of activists who are well-versed in street power, coercion and, indeed, manipulating realities.
The PSP was able to set up its offices across the city — a considerable advantage over its rivals, MQM-P. That means a more robust organisation at the grassroots and at the top, where orders once issued shall be carried out with precision.
But does all of this translate into an electoral victory?
The PSP’s relationship with the upper corridors of power and law enforcement in Sindh means that it won’t be an insignificant factor this time round. Its main impact will show at provincial and local levels. On the street, its activists are allegedly taking down rival camps and election offices. But inside the party, there is also some trepidation about what the fate of activists would be if Kamal does not win the seat he is concentrating on. Activists reveal that they have been threatened by party leaders to “show results” as before or else cases will be reopened against them.
Kamal’s status as the blue-eyed boy of the establishment, his robust organisation, some organic and some not-so-organic support means that he has a better chance of winning than some other candidates.
Should he win, does that mean that he has arrived as a leader?
Perhaps. But leaders also need longevity, which is why a victory will only be the first step towards establishing his politics. To replace Altaf and his ideology, however, is a far bigger undertaking and one that a single electoral victory will not define.
There was once an emperor who loved his sherwanis: Pervez Musharraf.
Like all dictators who have lived beyond their regime, the life of Pervez Musharraf ever since being ushered out of the President House has been one of ignominy. His decisions thereafter have been generally perceived as cowardly and he resides abroad to escape charges of treason. He had seemingly entered politics on the belief that thousands of Facebook followers reflected his popularity. And such was the delusion that he believed he was actually popular enough to bag votes.
Of course this line of reasoning was going to fall on its head. Tragedy, farce, irrelevance.
When Musharraf was in power, he saw his “modern and moderate” image being projected best by Imran Khan and later, by Mustafa Kamal. Although the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) provided him with political legitimacy, these were the two that Musharraf wanted to invest in. Karachi became a poster child of Musharraf’s development regime, where things were the biggest and the best. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) of Altaf Hussain aligned with him on the basis of him being Urdu-speaking. But while Imran and even the JI abandoned their romance with Musharraf after some temporary gains, the MQM propped Musharraf during his best days and his worst. In other words, the MQM gave continued legitimacy to a dictator in return for substantial benefits.
Once out of power, however, Musharraf discovered that his relevance was only as the establishment’s man with some direct experience of dealing with the MQM. He was a link, a guarantor of sorts, that the MQM would stay reined in. His own party organisation in Karachi is insignificant, although it does have official offices and office-bearers.
But as the minus-Altaf formula played out in the public eye, Musharraf saw a greater role for himself in Mohajir politics. A divided Urdu-speaking vote spells disaster for his ambitions of power, and so he attempted to cobble together an alliance of the MQM-Pakistan, Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), other splinter factions and his All Pakistan Muslim League (APML). And of course, manoeuvre it to become the alliance’s uncontested leader.
Discussions towards that end were being brokered by influential intermediaries behind the scenes. And they were also moving along smoothly, till Mustafa Kamal decided to pull the trigger early and announce at the Karachi Press Club that an alliance was in the making. The local APML leadership seemed to be in on the plot, reaching the venue with sweets to distribute. Perhaps this was a way to pressure the MQM-P into entering the alliance but a strong reaction within the MQM-P halted the alliance in its tracks.
And with that, the last flicker of Musharraf’s relevance in Karachi politics also dimmed.
In organic terms, the on-ground support for his candidature is miniscule. The kind of voter that is attracted to him is now divided between the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, PSP and even the MQM-P. Of late, a splinter group from the MQM-P, which is being led by former deputy convener Shahid Pasha, has made overtures to join hands with the APML. Although Pasha claims that he has strength in numbers, MQM-P officials swat away his claims.
But in the final analysis, Musharraf is no match for the established actors and, certainly, not for their established organisational structures either. If Benazir Bhuttto’s party could not thrive while she was in exile, for example, and Altaf Hussain’s party is feeling the impact of long-distance communication being disrupted, Musharraf is simply a non-starter.
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 15th, 2018