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Hot n cold

December 31, 2011

Torched buses, Karachi, July 14. - AP Photo

A Muttahida Qaumi Movement activist would fumble for an answer if asked whether his political party is currently in government. Strangely enough, there is no yes-or-no answer to this simple question.

That the MQM is part of the ruling coalition is obvious. Some of its lawmakers are ministers, both in Sindh and at the centre.

But what happened to its request to be allocated opposition seats in the Sindh Assembly? The request was filed with the assembly secretariat when the MQM stormed out of government for the umpteenth time and found itself on a collision course with the Pakistan People’s Party. Has the request been withdrawn? Nobody knows. Does anybody care?

Conspiracy theorists are in any case convinced that the MQM joins and leaves government — and rejoins it with undiminished gusto — at the behest of the military establishment, a charge the party vehemently denies. In the very first month of 2011, it bid farewell to the PPP when the government allowed a surge in petroleum prices. What should have been seen as a principled exit from parliament afterwards exposed the MQM to odium when it not only rejoined the governing coalition in March but also felt no further pricks of conscience over subsequent hikes in petroleum prices.

Cynical political observers say that nobody knows for sure what issues the MQM walks out on the PPP government over and after what deals it returns. They do, however, speculate that monetary transactions — some lucrative concessions, some shady land deals — are involved, though they offer little by way of evidence.

Having said that, the party’s back-and-forth in the corridors of power is not always shrouded in mystery. Throughout the year the MQM saw red every time former Sindh Home Minister Zulfikar Mirza poured scorn on the party he labelled a fascist group of armed thugs thriving on extortion and a reign of terror.

Just as the party rejoined the ruling coalition in March, Mirza described the People’s Amn Committee — blamed by the MQM for gang warfare in Lyari — as a sister organisation of the PPP. A fresh war of words broke out between him and MQM politicians who accused him of patronising terrorism. But somehow the Muttahida, which initially lost no time in boycotting assembly sessions in protest, did not carry out its threat of leaving the coalition and agreed to pursue President Asif Ali Zardari’s ‘policy of reconciliation’ amid outrage from independent political observers who suspected that another murky, behind-the-scenes deal had been cut.

But a bitter parting of the ways came shortly afterwards. In late June the MQM again left the coalition in protest against the postponement of elections on two Karachi seats of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly. The MQM expected that, like before, it would be mollified and eased back into the coalition. But it ignored one serious imponderable: Mirza. He now upped the ante by expressing his support for MQM nemesis Afaq Ahmed, the interned (now released) chairman of the Mohajir Qaumi Movement-Haqiqi, and accusing MQM supremo Altaf Hussain of ordering the killings of Pashtuns.

Soon Karachi descended into chaos, with ethnic fault lines dividing the populace into armed groups engaged in internecine warfare. Citywide violence claimed the lives of over 540 people in July and August. But the president’s ‘policy of reconciliation’ worked again. MQM candidates won the two seats it had eyed in the AJK Legislative Assembly and the party rejoined the ruling coalition in October.

It is not clear how the MQM, forever quick to take offence, will respond next time coalition politics runs into trouble. But it will be unfortunate if, from force of habit, the party again allows Karachi to bleed.

— Bahzad Alam Khan is Dawn’s city editor for Karachi

By Bahzad Alam Khan