Hello… is it me you’re looking for?

Altaf Hussain works technology to reach out to and win over confused party workers amid crackdown

Hello… is it me you’re looking for?
The tide may have turned against Muttahida Qaumi Movement chief Altaf Hussain but nothing can prevent him from doing what he has been doing for the past two decades: remote controlling a party in Karachi from London. He doesn’t seem to be fazed by the Lahore High Court ban on anyone airing and publishing his images and speeches in the crackdown on the party’s installations across the province. All Altaf Hussain has to do is use different technology: FaceTime.

And he sounds optimistic, encouraging and telling workers not to worry and stand firm, says an MQM activist, describing one of his conversations with the party chief over Apple’s video-telephony application in a meeting. The meetings are arranged every second or third day, mostly at the office of Sathi Ishaq, who has emerged as a frontline leader after Altaf Hussain nominated him as a member of the interim MQM Rabita Committee operated from London.

Altaf Hussain has been using FaceTime to communicate for quite some time. He used it to establish contacts with party lawmakers such as Farooq Sattar and Ali Raza Abidi in the past. However, this is the first instance of him using it to talk to party workers. Prior to this he had to hold meetings to embarrass people proliferating rumours that he was not in a condition to think, speak and act, in other words that he was bedridden and near death. Nothing is as effective as FaceTime to dispel those myths.

The interim Rabita Committee summons office bearers of different sectors and wings in groups to deliver them the message. Besides Ishaq’s office, places used by others leaders and occasionally some dhabas or roadside tea hotels also become venues for these meetings, confirms Rabita Committee member Prof. Hasan Zafar Arif.

According to a worker who had been to one such meeting at Sathi Ishaq’s office, Altaf Hussain was on FaceTime but only used the audio setting. He maintained his signature style of opening the conversation with a recitation of Quranic verses and long salutations. But then he talked to a considerable number of workers and let them introduce themselves to him one by one.

Shabash, Shabash,” he would say when workers informed him about what they said was regaining their strength on the ground and reuniting with ‘comrades’. “Aap log aese hi kaam karte rahiye. InshaAllah woh din door nahi, jub establishment apne ghutne taikne per majboor hojae gi…” the worker quotes him as saying. You guys should keep working like this. God willing the day is not far that the establishment will be forced to kneel. There was no way to independently verify this quote.

The momentum of these meetings has, however, reduced. No message through these channels has been received by general workers since the October 22 arrests of Prof. Hasan Zafar Arif, Amjadullah Khan and former lawmaker Kunwar Khalid Younus. All three of them were arrested from the Karachi Press Club when they were about to hold a press conference as the new Rabita Committee. They have now been placed in 30-day detention under the Maintenance of Public Order law by the home department. Sathi Ishaq is underground.

When it became clear that Farooq Sattar and his group were parting ways with Altaf Hussain a day after his incendiary speech on August 22, the leadership in London started lobbying to reclaim the MQM from Sattar. Given these developments, the MQM London operations have had to be rather secretive. Right now contacts are being maintained on a personal level. Workers have been advised to first approach colleagues with whom they share a good understanding and then go after others. Maintaining a low profile is strictly instructed. Workers have been directed not to go to PIB Colony where the Farooq Sattar group has set up a makeshift MQM Pakistan headquarters.

Since ‘distance doesn’t matter’ for Altaf Hussain, as was previously inscribed on the Mukka Chowk roundabout near Nine-Zero, the leadership in London started getting on WhatsApp and other applications in a bid to first get comrades around the world on board. A source in MQM Australia said that the London leadership had asked for some ‘mazboot aasab kay log’ to campaign for Altaf Hussain in Pakistan. The message was simple: Aap ko Karachi jana hoga, tehreek jo hukm dey usey poora karna hoga. It is unclear whether that has materialised.

It is likely that technology will play a major role in the party’s battle for Karachi and whoever has the most command, outreach and media savvy will win. Take for example the APMSO fiasco. A major shift emerged when the Farooq Sattar faction, MQM Pakistan, disbanded the All Pakistan Muttahida Student Organization, which was the entity that gave birth to the MQM. London called it a joke. APMSO chairman Sarfaraz Siddiqui started messaging student workers reportedly from outside the country not to listen to Farooq Sattar and asserted that the MQM had no mandate over them. “The APMSO is an independent student organization reporting only to Altaf Hussain,” adds Faisal Khan, its Karachi University sector organizer. But the APMSO also split into two; one faction stayed with Altaf and the other leaned towards Sattar.

The writer is a journalist working with an English daily newspaper