Special to Times of Oman
The sudden arrest in London of Altaf Hussain, the leader of Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), and subsequent investigation by police over charges of money-laundering has triggered massive interest in both his fate and the future of his ethnic-based party.
Even though speculation had mounted over time that Hussain was no longer as powerful as he used to be since before last year's election where he was embroiled in a damaging confrontation with Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, an emerging political force that challenged him on his turf in Karachi, the fall from grace last Tuesday was rather swift.
From most accounts, the money laundering charges are serious, and there's the still unexplained 2010 murder, also in London, of the self-exiled Dr Imran Farooq, Hussain's former comrade, which many allege may also find a trail back to the MQM supremo because Farooq is reported to have complained of threats to his life after developing an interest in resurrecting an independent political course.
The MQM is a unique party, whose political significance is not lost on anyone with an ambition to rule the southern province of Sindh. The reason is its firm control over Karachi, the port city, which is Pakistan's financial hub and one of the world's pre-eminent metropolises.
This leverages MQM with a major say in matters governing the urban base of the province — even if it is out of power, which is rare. The biggest corollary which has come to define the party so-to-speak is its penchant for always gravitating to power regardless of which party it has to do business with.
Following last year's elections, it bargained a refusal to take up an offer from the Pakistan People's Party to join the provincial government in favour of cozying up to the current ruling party at the Centre — Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, but it didn't work out.
Finally, only recently, it went back to the PPP and joined its government in Sindh. What makes the MQM unique is in how Hussain runs the party from Edgware in North London — on telephone as it were.
Yes, unbelievable as it sounds, the portly figure of much reverence for his loyalists — and ridicule for opponents — Hussain has successfully steered the show since 1992 when he left Karachi discreetly after a warrant was issued for his arrest in a murder case during a particularly violent period in the city's history.
A list issued by the PPP government in 2009 stated that Hussain was allegedly involved in 72 cases, including 31 for murder and 21 for attempted murder. The list was issued after the Supreme Court of Pakistan had sought details from the government about the beneficiaries of the so-called National Reconciliation Ordinance.
The ordinance was enacted by strongman General Pervez Musharraf as part of a power-sharing deal with former prime minister Benazir Bhutto to quash cases against several politicians which they claimed were politically motivated. These ranged from corruption to murder.
However, none of the charges have ever dissuaded the MQM rank and file from virtually revering their self-exiled leader, who retains an iron grip over the party. Swathes of party loyalists listening in pin drop silence to his phone addresses are legion. And few addresses have ever been treated to consideration for time, space and weather.
Hussain commands the kind of following no other party in Pakistan does even though most other parties are similarly "cult"-driven. However, there is a discernible difference — most political observers agree the MQM is ruled by fear.
They allege the party is run Mafioso-style with the hierarchy swearing personal allegiance to one man, not the party, and deriving all their strength from street battle-hardened cadres known for their "heavy hand". Hussain has often exhibited his raw power to bring the city down to its knees with as little as a strike call.
Following Hussain's arrest and questioning, the MQM appeared to be typically going the street route with incidents of gunfire, torching of vehicles and general chaos coming in as people closed shop wherever they were and ran back home frantically to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.
However, unverified reports suggest a strongly worded message was sent from the powers-that-be — euphemism mostly for the security establishment — to behave or else brace up for a crackdown with the possible arrest of the party leadership in Karachi.
While the PML-N government and the PPP offered gingerly sympathies to the beleaguered Hussain and his party, once again it took Imran Khan to question the party's tactics of trying to hold the country's business hub hostage for something that had nothing to do with the State of Pakistan.
The author is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.