MQM and the philosopher’s stone

The party's new left-leaning Rabita Committee is squeaky clean but will its leaders be able to wrest back power?

MQM and the philosopher’s stone
An unsuspecting retired professor of Philosophy at Karachi University has been entrusted with the toughest political assignment in Pakistan: Prof. Hasan Zafar Arif must defend Altaf Hussain and his beleaguered Muttahida Qaumi Movement. It is a task that old party loyalists led by the silver-tongued Farooq Sattar have failed to accomplish, a task that was wittingly or unwittingly created by Mr Hussain on August 22 when he decided to shout anti-Pakistan slogans and instigate his followers to attack media houses. It went all so horribly wrong. The party had already been staging a hunger strike to protest against what it said were the extra-judicial killings and arrest of party workers. Then, that fateful speech. It is often said that what the military establishment wasn’t able to do to the MQM in the last three years during the Rangers-led operation, Altaf Hussain did to his own party in one phone call.

Defending this party is certainly a tall order for someone who just joined it. Prof. Hasan Zafar Arif has actually had a long political career with the Pakistan Peoples Party but had joined the MQM just a month before August 22. It is small wonder that some people see him as an opportunist cashing in on a political vacuum—after all, Farooq Sattar and Co. had to bow out under pressure of the speech to form their own MQM-Pakistan entity, ostensibly in a bid to ensure the survival of the party or save their own skins.
In a span of seven months the MQM has mutated into three distinct parties. The loyalist group in London has rallied around Altaf Hussain; the Farooq Sattar-led MQM Pakistan is in Karachi; the ex-MQM Mustafa Kamal-led Pak Sarzameen Party contains many former Muttahida cadres. It feels as if this time round there are just too many contenders

And so, the professor finds himself in an unenviable position. The party has split into four factions, its voters and workers are confused, its militant wing has gone underground, is on the run or has fled the country, a sizable number of workers is missing or is in the custody of the Rangers and over 100 party offices have been demolished. The operation led by the Rangers that began in September 2013 has crippled the party’s organizational structure. Hundreds of workers have gone underground fearing arrests and the party’s imposing headquarters, Nine-Zero, has been sealed. The only part of this picture that is clear is that the military establishment is in no mood to tolerate any of Altaf Hussain’s politics in Pakistan.

And so, the good professor, Kunwar Khalid Younis and two other members of the MQM London’s transitional Rabita Committee find themselves in 30 days of detention under the Maintenance of Public Order law in the latest manifestation of the minus-Altaf policy. They find themselves in this situation as the professor had stated at his first press conference, at the Karachi Press Club, that there was only one MQM, the one led by Altaf Hussain, and the rest should be ruled out as just factions. The Rangers took him and the new Rabita Committee into custody exactly a week later.

These arrests have been a blow to the transitional Rabita Committee, which was created earlier in the month after Scotland Yard acquitted Altaf Hussain in all money laundering cases for lack of evidence. The acquittal gave the beleaguered MQM a much-needed boost. But with the detention of its Rabita Committee members, MQM London is fast running out of options to keep its presence alive. Indeed, the way the government has moved against MQM London gives credence to a possibility that the party may be banned soon.

This is, of course, not the first time the party has fallen on hard times. The MQM is the only party in Pakistani politics that has seen the most military operations since its inception and to some degree owes its initial rise to support from the Establishment and the desire of a disgruntled Mohajir community to be represented. It invoked the ire of state crackdowns, however, when its militant wing grew to unleash a reign of terror in Karachi. Despite the operations, though, the party managed a delicate balancing act and stayed a part of the ruling government for over three decades. It accomplished this despite being generally blamed for everything that has gone wrong in Karachi and being accused of having links with the Indian intelligence agency.

In fact, one could argue that military operations have actually made the party stronger. Consider this. During the 1992 military operation, the Establishment created the MQM-Haqiqi faction led by Afaq Ahmed and Amir Khan, but the first major split in the party never presented a serious challenge. Instead, some people believe that military operations have only given the MQM a new life and made it more politically mature. Today the Haqiqi is obsolete. But perhaps this time round it is different. In a span of seven months the MQM has mutated into three distinct parties. The loyalist group in London has rallied around Altaf Hussain; the Farooq Sattar-led MQM Pakistan is in Karachi; the ex-MQM Mustafa Kamal-led Pak Sarzameen Party contains many former Muttahida cadres. It feels as if this time round there are just too many contenders. And for what it is worth, the Farooq Sattar-led MQM Pakistan is being seen by the rest of Pakistani political parties as an acceptable MQM. A gesture to this effect was given by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who welcomed Sattar at an all-parties conference held in Islamabad last month.


The 3 factions

How Prof. Arif and the MQM London group strategize will eventually have to be seen in light of the 2018 elections. MQM Pakistan’s elected representatives have not yet resigned from the seats they won in the 2013 elections on the Altaf Hussain ticket. They are aware they won’t be able to get them back with his blessing now. Altaf Hussain knows this and was justified to demand his legislators who broke away to form their own faction should resign and go back to the people to see if they win their mandate without his blessing.

Initially, the Mustafa Kamal-led Pak Sarzameen Party was being seen as a main contender to Sattar’s MQM Pakistan but now that MQM London has announced a new Rabita Committee there are even chances that the two factions might forge some sort of alliance or merge against London. And since Altaf Hussain has a history of magnanimity, one cannot rule out the MQM Pakistan seeking his forgiveness and rejoining the MQM London ranks well ahead of the elections if London gains a strong footing in the days to come.

Altaf Hussain has lost his once iron-grip control on Karachi, but as long as he is alive, despite the ill health, it would be difficult for an MQM voter to cast his or her ballot for a candidate who hasn’t been fielded by the supremo. These voters, Altaf Hussain’s strength, are drawn from the lower- and middle-class Urdu-speaking swathe of society, whose identity is prominently defined by ancestors they say laid down their lives for the creation of Pakistan.

Will these voters place stock in the eight-month-old Pak Sarzameen Party, which is generally thought to have been given space by the military establishment? (Mustafa Kamal and Anis Qaimkhani waited for considerable time in Dubai before getting the go-ahead to fly to Karachi on March 3 to launch a new party). But after the initial buzz, PSP soon lost its charm as an MQM alternative in the post-August 22 scenario when MQM Pakistan came into being as an option. Its rivals refer to it as “laundry”, if that is any indication. All it seemed to do was provide some cover for MQM unit and sector members who wanted to evade arrest. In fact some of the MQM activists who were picked up were released upon PSP intervention.

Politics is not working out for the infant party as its architects had wished. Kamal’s growing frustrations are evident from his latest outburst against the governor, provoking the usually mild-mannered Ishrat ul Ebad to reply in the same vein, reducing the showdown to mere rhetoric. With the co-founder of his party in jail, and rumors of discord within the party, Mustafa Kamal has not spelled out his plans for taking part in the 2018 general elections, casting doubts about the party’s political future.

On the other hand, despite being pushed to the wall, MQM London and the Farooq Sattar-led MQM Pakistan have pinned their hopes on an incoming army chief to give them some kind of respite from the crackdown. But it is unlikely that the army as an institution will undo all the work that has been done and give the MQM a breather in 2017 when all political parties will be preparing for the 2018 general elections. In fact, possibly the worst thing that could happen to them is for ISI chief Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar to be posted as the Corps Commander of Karachi by the incoming army chief. That is when they are almost certainly guaranteed a more aggressive operation. And that is when Prof. Hasan Zafar Arif will certainly have his work cut out for him to resuscitate the MQM. He will have to acquire something like the Philosopher’s stone, which as the Harry Potter book tells us, returns power to whoever comes to possess it.

The writer is a Pakistan correspondent with a foreign news agency and can be reached at