The MQM’s Dilemma

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) has been undergoing a massive organisational shake-up these days as its founder and supreme leader Altaf Hussain declared a crusade against crime and corruption within the party ranks. Many office-bearers at different tiers of the party have been suspended, expelled or sidelined to make room for those waiting in the wing.
In a much delayed but desperately needed step, Hussain officially and openly forbade senior party officials and workers from collecting donations, indulging in the land encroachment racket and advancing business and commercial interests by exploiting the MQM’s name and clout.
According to the grapevine, some once middle-class MQM stalwarts – who are now multi-millionaires in dollar and pound sterling terms – proved as corrupt and greedy, if not more, as politicians hailing from feudal, tribal or business backgrounds. They built huge business empires starting from the congested North Nazimabad roads to Dubai and stretching up to the United States.
Altaf Hussain, many of his die-hard companions and – above all – his ardent followers have every reason to feel angry and betrayed at the way a party representing the lower and middle classes has been exploited to fulfil personal agendas and greed.
The process of accountability, self-evaluation and self-criticism within the MQM started soon after the May 11 general elections in which this urban-based party managed to retain its share of the national and provincial assembly seats in Karachi and Hyderabad, but witnessed a four percent drop in its overall share of popular votes.
Although the margin of victory for MQM candidates remained large in most of its traditional constituencies, the number of votes polled in favour of the once discounted Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) should give cause for concern to the MQM think tank. The PTI candidates emerged at the number two position in most MQM-dominated areas with a sizeable number of votes. The PTI also bagged one national and two provincial assembly seats in Karachi, brushing aside the traditional anti-MQM forces – the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Awami National Party (ANP) – which once competed and often won from there.
Many upper-middle and middle-class Karachiites, who had never voted before, came out in droves to vote for the PTI. Many women and youngsters in the lower middle-class neighbourhoods – the MQM’s support-base – also voted for the ‘bat’, underlining the yearning for change even through the untried and untested PTI.
Apart from the cult appeal of Imran Khan, the PTI also managed to attract the voters of those parties that had boycotted the elections, alleging rigging and irregularities during polling in Karachi. This negative voting also boosted the PTI’s fortunes.
The voting pattern shows a huge surge in the number of votes polled against the traditional political forces, including the MQM, underlining a slight shift in Karachi’s political culture and emergence of new fault-lines. The answer to this noticeable shift in voting lies in the five year misrule of the PPP-led government of which the MQM remained a partner almost till the end. Yes, unlike its former allies, the MQM successfully defended its turf, but this time with a slightly slimmer victory margin and a huge psychological blow as many educated and professional Urdu-speaking families voted against it.
Why do an increasing number of Karachiites – especially the apolitical educated middle- and upper-middle class – feel so frustrated with the old political order, including the MQM? The reason is the failure of these mainstream forces to address any of the issues that affect, and hurt, the lives of the common man.
The list of some of the mega-failures of the PPP-MQM rule starts from the spike in political and religiously-motivated violence in Karachi in which nearly 7,000 people lost their lives. The irony was that militants belonging to the three ruling coalition partners – the PPP, MQM and ANP – were locked in bloody turf wars in the city. Their members were killing, kidnapping and torturing each other to death as the top leaders, by design or default, failed to translate their vision of unity to their rank-and-file.
This period also witnessed an unprecedented rise in street crime and extortion. Traders, business-owners and industrialists staged extraordinary shutter-down protests against the extortion mafia led by the PPP-backed Amn Committee of Lyari, which proved more brutal and ruthless compared to the old boys on the scene. As street crime, extortions, killings and lawlessness increased, the common man began to feel more helpless and defenceless on the streets of Karachi.
The MQM’s frequent protests and discussions with its senior coalition partner failed to change the situation on the ground. The nexus between crime and politics remained as strong as ever as all the political and religious parties contributed to the mess according to their size and power.
More guns, gunmen and guards remained on the roads and people had nowhere to turn to. If, on the one hand, criminals-cum-political gangsters continued to harass the people, on the other motorcades and armed guards of elected representatives, bigwigs, the rich and the powerful terrorised them through their sirens and automatic rifles.
There were no visible attempts to serve the people and improve their lives in the partnership of the rural and urban forces of Sindh. The PPP took the MQM for a long ride on the issue of local bodies which are vital to run and manage big cities like Karachi. By the time the diluted local body bill was approved by the Sindh Assembly, the time was up for this government. And the PPP, using its majority, proved quick to scrap even that in the last days of its term once the MQM decided to partially part ways with the government, but leaving its nominated governor firmly in the saddle.
The one other mega issue of Karachi – the mass transit system – also remained untouched by the former ruling coalition. There has been a steady deterioration in whatever existed in Karachi in the name of public transport. If until a few years ago people dangled at the footboards of rickety old buses and vans, now they have to hang for their lives at their windows, rear-bumpers and rooftops. And we hear that in our region, other cities of similar or even smaller size including Mumbai, New Delhi and our own Lahore already have or are in the process of installing mass transit systems.
The list of the former ruling coalition’s failures and the way it disappointed the masses can be stretched a lot more – from mismanaging health care and education to the lack of provision of even basic civic amenities. All praise to the MQM’s organisational structure, which pulled off these elections despite the dismal performance of the past government.
Moving forward, the MQM will have difficult choices to make – not just in terms of cleaning its stables and reorganising the party, but also in the matter of rejoining or not another PPP-led coalition at the provincial level. There would most certainly be pressure from within the MQM to be part of the PPP-led coalition. But if the past is any guide, this unity of diversity hardly stands a chance to deliver anything in the larger public interest.
This time around, the MQM stands on a much weaker wicket with few bargaining options in the future coalition setup. At the centre, Nawaz Sharif has comfortable numbers. He doesn’t need to run after the MQM to get himself or his nominee elected as prime minister or president. In Sindh too the PPP can easily run the show minus the MQM.
In this situation the best course for the MQM would be to act as a democratic and responsible opposition, lobbying both at the centre and the provincial levels on the key issues of improving law and order in Karachi, giving it a mass transit system and reviving the local bodies. The party should also fight and purge criminals, killers and the corrupt from its ranks to emerge as a pro-people and clean political force in the city. Is this a tall order for the MQM? Going by its record it seems so. Let’s hope that sceptics are proved wrong.