Maverick Altaf's sway over Pakistan politics

The ethnic-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement is a unique political party. It is a vibrant force, whose political significance is not lost on anyone with an ambition to rule the southern Pakistani province of Sindh.

The reason?
It has firm control over Karachi, the port city and provincial capital, 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.

It is pretty safe to suggest, on account of its history, that while other parties may come into and go out of power, MQM's staying power is nearly a given. But that does not preclude its share of pitfalls — to which I'll return — but it has mostly managed to hold its own thanks to shrewd politics by its supremo Altaf Hussain.

This brings me to the unique factor mentioned at the beginning of this piece. 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 — 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 Government of Pakistan in 2009, whose ally MQM still is, in fact, 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.

Musharraf, who lives in exile after being forced to resign in 2008, now regrets the deal, which he had agreed to in return for an unhindered bid for re-election as president in the winter of 2007.

However, none of these charges have ever dissuaded the MQM rank and file from virtually revering their self-exiled leader, who retains iron grip over the party from a spectacular physical distance.

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. These addresses always have the Rabita Committee (Coordination Committee) — a virtual who's who of the party — religiously seated on the floor in almost servile manifestation. 

The MQM has rarely found its match in terms of street prowess and when it has, it has found its calling. However, it did face the brunt of a military operation, no less, in 1992, which considerably weakened the party's stranglehold for some time. The clean-up operation was conducted to free Karachi from severe violence — unleashed, it is widely believed — by MQM activists. However, the MQM which boycotted the 1993 and 1997 general elections under protest returned to the fold each time.

The party is accused of compromising on principles to stay in power. It's an allegation which has been strongly reinforced following several flip-flops in the current term alone, making it difficult to figure out if the MQM is really an ally of the Pakistan People's Party's coalition government at the Centre and Sindh province or its opponent in an ally's garb.

In one instance, it quit the provincial cabinet — but not the federal cabinet — apparently, over oil price hike (a federal subject), but returned once it settled some other issues with the PPP. The party made a song and dance of how the hike would hurt the people but subsequently, ignored a much higher increase in oil price!

More recently, the party was in the news for questioning a court verdict for delimitation of constituencies and voter verification in Karachi. This prompted the MQM supremo to issue a strongly worded address that ridiculed a judge and accused the court of bias.

A contempt notice followed from the Supreme Court with summons for Hussain. The MQM chief was quick to see how that would have serious implications for his British passport and promptly apologized.

However, what took the cake recently was how Hussain first appeared to lead on Dr Tahir-ul Qadri, Pakistan's latest wannabe saviour, with critical political support for his long march against the PPP government while staying in the ruling coalition but immediately pulled out once his demands for a major say in the Sindh caretaker set-up ahead of the next general elections were met.

Clearly, no-one beats MQM when it comes to extracting one's pound of flesh.
The writer is freelance 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.

Special to Times of Oman


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