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When the stakes are high

June 30, 2011

MQM leader Farooq Sattar announces his parties decision to quit the coalition government during a press conference in Karachi on June 27, 2011. – AFP Photo

What is so special about the Kashmir Legislative Assembly election that the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has quit two governments and a gubernatorial post for it?

If you come to think of it, the party is not upset over the entire election process. It is annoyed because, by the admission of its own senior leaders, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) pressurised it to withdraw from contesting one of the two Legislative Assembly seats meant for Kashmiri migrants living in Karachi/Sindh.

So is it really one seat in the elected house of an area which does not have the constitutional status, powers and privileges of even a province that the MQM has resigned from at least 15 ministerial and advisory posts in one federal and one provincial government besides giving up the post of Sindh’s governor which brings with it a lot of political perks and privileges as well as direct power over the law enforcement agencies, at least in Karachi?

If the question draws more like a gasp than an answer, here is what will make it sound even more awkward. In the last Kashmir election, the MQM had won both Karachi/Sindh seats but how much did this actually change the party’s political fortunes – in Kashmir and elsewhere in the country? Voters in Kashmir may also ask as to how much difference the MQM made to their lives and the politics of their region due to its presence in the outgoing Legislative Assembly. Or what more could Altaf Hussain and his coordination committee have expected to achieve with a similar presence in the next assembly than what they could, or could not, in the previous one?

When they won those two seats in the last election they claimed that the politics of Kashmir was changing and they also claimed that the MQM was now beyond doubt a national party. But come to think of it, how much of the Kashmir politics has really changed? If it really has, why the party is still staking claim to only the seats it had won previously. Why it has not accused the PPP of stealing the entire Kashmir election? Or is it a not-so-tacit admission that its candidates from the middle and lower classes have failed to convince voters from their own lower and middle classes to vote in their favour? Winning the two seats had also done absolutely nothing to change the MQM’s status from a regional party to a national one. It remains a party of urban Sindh, notwithstanding its desire to expand in other directions.

So why make so much of a fuss about something which is neither as rewarding as being in power in Karachi and Islamabad nor as gratifying as enjoying the ministerial pelf. Most commentators agree that the MQM is camouflaging something else behind the façade of its anger over the Kashmir election. It is in explaining as to what is being camouflaged that they differ. Some Karachi-based analysts say the party wants the officers of its choice in the departments of its choice, others in the same city point out that Dr Zulfiqar Mirza, Sindh’s interior minister on leave, is waiting in the wings to return to the hot seat or maybe in an even bigger position and the MQM is trying to pre-empt that.

Those based in Lahore and Islamabad have two different takes; a) Altaf Hussain is preparing to join hands with the likes of Nawaz Sharif, Jamaat-e-Islami and Imran Khan to form a formidable opposition alliance that will not only topple the government but will also win in the next election and form a government of its own. Why else would Hussain – in his speech in which he announced the decision to quit the government – remember President Asif Zardari by the same unenviable titles as Sharif, Khan and Jamaat do? What else could explain his moral indignation at the “backstabbing” PPP if it is not and effort to harmonise his idiom with those also morally perturbed over the political and moral somersaults by Zardari and his cohort? b) The military establishment, bent upon getting rid of Zardari and his PPP, is prompting Hussain and the MQM to turn the volume on for their criticism of the government on whatever grounds possible. Why else has Hussain likened the PPP pressure on his party to withdraw from one Kashmir election seat to the pressure the then corps commander in Karachi, General (retired) Naseer Akhtar, exerted on the party to force it to withdraw from the National Assembly election in 1990s? His message was loud and clear: If there is no difference between the army and Zardari, then it is always better to work with the former.

These explanations, no matter how swiftly and neatly they settle in to the conspiracy theories perpetually doing the rounds in the land of the pure, look more like wishful thinking by those who want to see the back of Zardari and his party at the earliest, and for good. For them it does not seem to matter how it comes about. What they forget is that the MQM does not just have a history of uneven ties with the PPP; it has had rocky political relations with Sharif, Imran, Jamaat – almost everyone who is anyone in the political arena. And it is not 1989 when the MQM was already comfortably ensconced in the Sharif camp before having to formally bid farewell the PPP.

So many bridges between the political actors relevant to the creation of a pan-opposition alliance have been burnt down in the last two decades by those political actors themselves that putting in place even the most rudimentary versions of them will take some doing. An automatic fraternity between the MQM and other parties in the opposition materialising out of nowhere – not immediately happening even though it is next to impossible to predict about politics in Pakistan and even more so about the politics of the MQM.

And the military establishment has perhaps never been so overstretched and self-absorbed in its own faults of omission and commission that it may not have the time, even if it has the willingness, for political plotting in the short term. This, however, needs to be accompanied by the usual disclaimer that the military establishment is as opaque in its working and thinking as anything can get. Foretelling their thoughts and plans always runs the risk of going askew.

Still, there are too many ifs and buts in the theories being paddled in Lahore and Islamabad. Those based in Karachi, on the other hand, have the better chance of putting it right, if for nothing else then because of their proximity to where the MQM is most active and most visible. The recent past actually gives ample credence to their point of view. The MQM has, indeed, aggressively used its bargaining power to force changes in Sindh’s government and bureaucracy as well as in provincial legislation over the local governments, redrawing of district boundaries and the imposition of taxes.

Put your money on the MQM returning to the coalition after it gets yet another assurance on these counts or at least bet on a period of tough love between the MQM and PPP in the coming weeks and months before it changes for better or for worse. In any case, your money will be safer than putting it on the MQM-military plot or Hussain-Sharif conspiracy.

Badar Alam is editor of the political monthly magazine, Herald.