‘Altaf is holding the party hostage’

‘Altaf is holding the party hostage’
Few people have studied Karachi from the vantage point that Omar Shahid Hamid has. He served the city as a police officer for 15 years, driven to join the force after his father, KESC MD Shahid Hamid, was murdered in 1997. The killer, Saulat Mirza, a Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party worker, was executed last year and had confessed to being given orders to carry out the murder.

Omar Hamid was one of the rare examples in the police force to have a relevant academic background. He has an MSc in Criminal Justice Policy from the London School of Economics, an LLM and an LLB. After leaving Karachi because of threats in 2011, he went on to write best-selling crime fiction, The Prisoner, The Spinner’s Tale and his third book, The Party Worker, is out in February. The Friday Times asked him what he thought of this week’s developments.

TFT: How do you interpret this development in the trajectory of MQM’s seemingly dwindling fortunes?

Omar S Hamid: The MQM’s downward spiral can be mapped and linked to the beginning of Altaf Hussain’s legal problems in the UK. Since 2010-11, the priority for the party has been dealing with Mr. Hussain’s personal problems. And with the very real threat of incarceration in London hanging over him, Altaf has stopped thinking like a political animal. His widely reported issues with substance abuse have taken him even further from rational thought. And so we see the cyclical repetition of episodes like the one on August 22.

I would venture that there has been no political strategy in the party, just firefighting and reacting and covering up for Altaf’s increasingly erratic behaviour. It doesnt seem as if that behaviour will improve, and so, the leadership and rank and file of the party are faced with a choice: desert Altaf, and risk the opprobrium and possible vengeance from the party (remember this is still the party that says Quaid ka Ghaddar, Maut ka Haqdar), or see the continous loss of political capital that the party is suffering.

My personal view is that fearing for their lives, the bulk of MQM workers and leaders are waiting for Altaf Hussain to be removed from the scene, either through arrest or incarceration in London, or due to health reasons. A breakdown of his control of the party, based on either of those reasons would be the catalyst that would then see the bulk of the MQM making a break for it. In essence, Altaf is holding the party hostage.

TFT: What has been making Altaf Hussain so desperate? The talks with Federal Information Minister Pervez Rasheed were going on. Monday’s speech seems to have deliberately derailed that effort.

OSH: The desperation of Altaf Hussain stems from a number of reasons, including the ones enumerated above, namely his increasingly irrational thought process, brought on by the pressure of a very hard and probing Scotland Yard investigation, that just doesn’t seem to go away, his substance abuse issues and also, a growing realisation that the MQM, and Altaf’s own nuisance value in the firmament of Pakistani politics, isn’t what it used to be. The last two governments, at the federal and Sindh levels, did not, to be honest, need the MQM. The Pakistan Peoples Party wanted to keep them onside, so they kept them in the coalition, but President Zardari didnt really concede to any of the MQM’s demands because they had no leverage over the government. and the Pakistan Muslim League-N, with no stakes in Karachi and an absolute majority in the National Assembly, has even less time for the MQM.

Plus, the onset of the modern media and the 24-hour news cycle means that all of Altaf’s follies are now covered and subject to ridicule, thus making him lose a lot of his mystique as a leader. It might have been very impressive for a young man to hear Altaf’s speeches via satellite phone in the 1990s, but it is different watching Altaf doing ridiculous things on TV. And I find this unique because despite the MQM’s much-vaunted media savvy, they have failed in that most basic of PR tasks—they have been unable to shape the public’s view of their client, and instead that view has been shaped by his various gaffes. So the frustration grows.

TFT: The MQM seemed to have fared much better under Generals Musharraf and Kayani but not so much under Army Chief Gen. Raheel Sharif. Would it be correct to assume that it has been rattled by the lack of army support?

OSH: Ever since General Musharraf brought the MQM back into the fold, they have enjoyed unprecedented closeness with the military establishment. They were a key ally of his, supported all of the general’s grand designs, and as a result, they were given the keys to the kingdom. They were handed over unchecked power in Sindh. (MQM’s three previous stints in government, 1988-89, 1990-92 and 1997-98 had brought extremely fractious coalitions, with the MQM in a constant battle with its coalition partners, and denied some of its key demands, such as control of the Sindh Home ministry and elimination of the Haqiqi faction, each time).

With Musharraf, all of these demands were fulfilled, and even more so. Musharraf even allowed MQM a measure of interference in military and intelligence-related postings in Sindh, something the army has never done for any other party. Naturally, this had led to rumblings of dissent within the military establishment, but nothing could be done till Musharraf’s resignation. Under Kayani, while the level of access and the virtual veto that MQM had enjoyed over certain appointments in Karachi ended, the relationship remained a warm one, primarily due to the efforts of Dr Ishrat ul Ibad, who had a good personal equation with the general. Furthermore, even when the cycles of ethnic killings restarted in Karachi, the prevalent view was that, with the army constantly under attack from the TTP (which was at its height), and with two provinces already deeply affected by insurgency, the military establishment could not afford to open up another front by pushing back against the MQM.

However, the current military leadership felt that the army needed to rebalance the equation with the MQM. General Raheel does not view the MQM with the same rose-tinted glasses as generals Musharraf and Kayani, and the current DG ISI’s views have been tempered by his stint as DG Rangers Sindh, where he witnessed the MQM’s criminality first hand. To top that off, Altaf’s derogatory and abusive statements towards the military have hardened the views of the rest of the army leadership as well as the rank and file. It would be difficult now for any army chief to be seen as pro-MQM after Altaf’s comments.

Then there is the resurfacing of evidence, from London this time, of what seems to be the MQM’s continuing relationship with R&AW. Now these links have been there since at least the mid-1990s, but I believe Musharraf was able to gloss over them, and also probably received some assurances from the party that all of that was in the past and would no longer be pursued. The evidence uncovered by Scotland Yard apparently indicates that is not the case. This has further enflamed army opinion against the party. This attittude has rattled the MQM, because none of their normal overtures are working. The military’s line is simply that the party needs to dismantle its militant wing, and it needs to get rid of its London leadership. Short of that, no compromise seems acceptable at the moment. And of course, that would include the removal of Altaf Hussain. So it has placed Altaf in a difficult predicament.

TFT: How do you view the appearance of the PSP? Has it been successful so far? Is this just a repeated of Haqiqi history?

OSH: It is clear to anyone who follows the MQM’s internal machinations that the last five years have laid bare the growing rifts within the party. Fear of Altaf and fear of the militant wing, which is still controlled through him or an individual appointed and responsible directly to him, means that everyone in the party has been reluctant to publicly break with Altaf. According to my information, even Mustafa Kamal and Anis Qaimkhani had to be given hefty assurances regarding their personal security before they stepped out.

The PSP is unlikely to receive much traction until Altaf remains on the scene. On the other hand, his incapacitation, through jail or sickness, will then mean that the PSP will be an available vessel for members of the MQM to jump to. The difference between the PSP and Haqiqi is that the Haqiqi was made up of the people who founded the party’s militant wing. Amir and Afaq were not professional politicians because they had always been enforcers, and thus, while they could hold and defend areas such as Landhi and Line Area, they could not make any political ingress.

The PSP has managed to attract some of the MQM’s most promising political talent, such as Mustafa Kamal and Raza Haroon. Of course they too have elements from the militant wing but they can do a better job of putting a political face on. And, in light of the PTI’s failure to talk about Karachi-centric issues, if departures from the MQM start snowballing due to incidents like Monday’s one, and especially if the PSP can attract the party’s street level organisers and grass roots workers, then they can have decent prospects for the future. However, I dont think that the PSP will be able to inherit the entire MQM legacy. there will be other splinters, and the logical result of the departure of Altaf from the political scene will be the fragmentation of the MQM’s electoral empire.

TFT: How does this change Karachi’s political landscape? The PPP it seems won’t be able to back the MQM as it is under pressure itself.

OSH: As far as the PPP is concerned, it is far from certain that it will give the MQM a blank cheque in terms of support. For all the PPP’s own problems, the MQM’s problems mean that the MQM cannot operate as an effective opposition in Sindh. Plus, there remains within the PPP, a strong undercurrent of opposition to the party’s decision in 2008, to ally with the MQM. This remains an unacceptable position for many jiyalas, and it is clear that this undercurrent of opposition matters within the PPP leadership, otherwise Bilawal Bhutto would not have made the statements that he did regarding “uncle Altaf and NaMaloom Afraad”. And since the MQM’s votes aren’t crucial for the survival of the provincial government, the PPP can afford to play the long game with the MQM. Occasional expressions of support, that do not carry any practical assistance with them, are ultimately meaningless.

TFT: The Karachi mayoral election has taken place. Waseem was never a favourite candidate. How do you see this playing out?

OSH: Waseem Akhtar is no Ishrat ul Ibad, neither is he Mustafa Kamal. He was Altaf’s choice and represents the hardliners within the MQM. And it was a choice made, in my opinion, in a fit of pique, when Altaf wished to send a message to the establishment after the MQM’s victory in local bodies elections.

According to my sources, Arshad Vohra had almost gotten the nod, but Waseem Akhtar was inserted subsequently. Vohra would probably have been a better choice, coming from the city’s business community, and widely respected in that community. Akhtar has a reputation for mismanagement and alleged corruption, from his stints as a provincial home minister and local government minister. He was rated as one of the MQM’s worst ministers from 2002 to 2008. He is a difficult man to get along with, even within the party, and he has zero traction not just with the military establishment but even with the PML-N (remember he famously insulted Nawaz Sharif a few years back) and the PPP.

In short, had Altaf been thinking rationally, Waseem Akhtar would have been a lousy pick if you want to reboot your party’s image. Akhtar reinforces the party’s image of thuggery, rather than diluting it. But the pick was reactionary, and furthers my point that in the past five years, the MQM’s strategic decision-making has reflected only the personal whims and moods of Altaf rather than a wider political strategy. Keeping these circumstances in mind, I dont see how Akhtar would succeed as a mayor, because it doesnt seem as if Altaf is particularly interested in having a successful mayor.

TFT: Are we looking at another operation against the MQM?

OSH: Technically an operation has been underway in Karachi for months. The MQM claims it is MQM-specific, but my information is that it has equally targeted jihadi elements and Lyari gangsters. Of course a lot of those successes are not made public for security reasons, but if you view the decline in terror attacks in the city, it is evident that the TTP networks in Karachi are also not as robust as they were two years ago. And from a neutral point of view,  the current operation, in comparison with MQM-centric operations in the past, has been a light touch. Up till August 22, the party’s sectors and units were operating freely in the city. That was not the case in 1992 or in 1995. The difference is that those sector and unit offices were no longer no-go areas, because there was no bar or restriction on law-enforcing agencies searching them for absconding criminals and illegal weapons, but their political activity has not been disrupted. The question to ask is this: If the operation has targeted terrorists and hitmen, whose involvement in crimes in the city has subsequently been highlighted in the courts, and the MQM claims that its workers are being victimised, is it accepting the presence of a militant wing?

TFT: If you were in charge of Karachi right now, how would you be handling it politically and security-wise?

OSH: The key issue for Karachi is this: One party has had an outsized advantage to conduct politics in the city because of its militant wing. The removal of such a wing, and the specific targeting of militants, rather than just party supporters, will create a level playing field in the city politically, where all parties should compete for the 20 NA and 50 PA seats freely, without fear of intimidation. But serious change in the city’s landscape will only come when the Altaf Hussain chapter is closed, and only then will the MQM finally be able to mature as a political party, rather than operate as a cult of personality.

Correction: An earlier draft of this interview mentioned that Omar Hamid's new book, The Party Worker, is centred on Altaf Hussain. That is not the case. This is an updated version of the story to correct that.