Since the 1980s Altaf Hussain has ruled Karachi by any means necessary. Loyalty is heartily rewarded while dissidence is quickly crushed. The city’s business heavyweights pay regular tributes, lest their investments flame up like the Baldia Town factory

Even for a cult of personality,the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) is unique. Its beloved leader, Altaf Hussain, sings, tells jokes and takes a nap, all while addressing the ‘faithful’. Since 1992, the wireless politician has phoned in to party rallies in Pakistan from his other motherland, the UK. Lately though, his boisterous preaching has given way to a dark irritability. In April, this surfaced as the sacking from party ranks of former disciple, and present governor of Sindh, Ishratul Ibad. Hussain alleged that Ibad “was and is representative of the federation,” and had no association with the MQM.
Ishratul Ibad’s dismissal indicates Altaf Hussain’s growing paranoia about those closest to him, especially the successful ones. At 12 years and counting, Ibad is the longest serving provincial governor in Pakistan’s history. With Hussain taking to conspiracy theories in recent years, Ibad became the party’s point man for politicians to run deals by. He could still make a comeback, as the party patriarch is notorious for policy U-turns. For over two decades, Altaf Hussain has repeatedly resigned from party leadership, only to take it all back. That said, his recent rhetoric has switched gears, as if something scares him.
Altaf Hussain is no stranger to adversity. He has lived through the military’s MQM specific Operation Cleanup and has lived down 31 murder allegations. Still, there is something about the Rangers’ recent raid on Nine Zero (MQM headquarters) and the rise of dead-man-talking Saulat Mirza that unnerves him. He can sense the tide turning but does not know how to react. Hussain’s growing frustration is now seeping down to the party rank and file, and making them turn violent even in celebration. The Karimabad incident with MQM workers, after the party won the NA 246 local body polls, illustrates this disturbing trend.
The MQM is a political party born of grievances and not all are imaginary. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s quota system, made law in 1973, attempted to reverse the Urdu-speaking Muhajirs’ (refugees’) relatively privileged position. After 1947, these Muslim imports had quickly risen up the sociopolitical ladder in Pakistan. In 1984, Altaf Hussain created the MQM to focus upon these grievances to tak back power. Unfortunately, what began as a civil rights movement quickly devolved into blatant racketeering.
Since the 1980s Altaf Hussain has ruled Karachi by any means necessary. Loyalty is heartily rewarded while dissidence is quickly crushed. The city’s business heavyweights pay regular tributes, lest their investments flame up like the Baldia Town factory in 2012. MQM foot soldiers are also happy to bring up the custom-made body bags that await defaulters. Ironically, the party has Bhutto’s family to thank for its prosperity. From 1988 onwards the Pakistani establishment (aka the real power broker) needed a tool to sabotage the Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP’s) ascendant populism. Altaf Hussain’s ethnic politics fit the bill splendidly.
There is no evidence that the establishment or army were ever indifferent to Altaf Hussain’s nuisance value. Yet, when compared to the national appeal of the Bhuttos, he was a mere anarchist. They could ignite emotions Pakistan-wide while his support base dwindled outside urban Sindh. After the elder Bhutto was hanged by General Zia, his daughter (and later prime minister) Benazir Bhutto inherited the mantle. In cahoots with Nawaz Sharif, the establishment prepped the MQM to divide Sindh on ethnic lines. A restive Karachi would be the norm until a fellow Muhajir, General Musharraf, came to power in 1999.
Altaf Hussain’s increasing unpredictability has also coincided with the rise of Imran Khan. The cricketer-turned-politician and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) bigwig has worthier agitational skills to provide more bang for the establishment buck. His party has now replaced the MQM as premium opposition-for-hire to keep democratic governments in line. To add to Hussain’s woes, the PTI’s recent attack dog-like forays into Sindh politics suggest that the kingmakers have moved on from the MQM. With the army painting domestic terrorism in broad, homogenous strokes, his party’s continued viability is uncertain without the “minus Altaf” formula.
Unless the MQM can reinvent itself, the PTI will continue carving into its Sindh vote bank and the Jamaat-e-Islaami (JI) will happily pick up the scraps. Furthermore, Hussain’s megalomania is uprooting the moderate tract of the MQM leadership. Before Ishratul Ibad, Mustafa Kamal, the party’s world-beating mayor of Karachi, was also ushered out on his whim. The path to the MQM’s political future is simple: if it cannot part ways with the ‘dear leader’, Altaf Hussain must cease being the immigrant boy who cries Punjabi wolf. It is time to stop being a Muhajir and embrace your Pakistan.

The writer is a freelance columnist and audio engineer based in Islamabad

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