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Was 2015 the straw that broke MQM’s back?

2015 was a tough year for the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and, by the looks of it, 2016 is proving to be a challenge as well. The party is, however, learning quite effectively to swerve the various curveballs being thrown its way.

The first crisis to hit the MQM in the first half of 2015 was when the Karachi operation literally reached its doorsteps. The invincibility of party headquarters Nine Zero was breached by paramilitary forces, and several MQM leaders and workers were arrested. Before that, the party’s organisational structure had been weakened considerably with the arrest of its unit and sector offices’ in-charges. This onslaught continued for the remaining part of the year and made a significant dent in MQM’s street power. This was reflected quite clearly in the lack of complete shutter-down strikes in Karachi all through last year even though the MQM had always taken pride in its ability to bring the city of over 20 million to a grinding halt within a matter of minutes.

The money laundering investigations by the Scotland Yard in the United Kingdom may have weakened the party’s leadership, especially the revered position of its party chief Altaf Hussain, when the investigations kicked off last year. However, those investigations have yet to reach any conclusion and, if the return of Altaf Hussain’s passport is any indication, it seems conviction is not on the cards for Altaf Hussain. Since the case is likely to expose some cross-border links in the game, it is likely that diplomacy will settle the matter.

The latest roadblock facing the party is Mustafa Kamal and his rigorous recruitment drive of disgruntled MQM leaders. This is not the first time that MQM dissidents have emerged in the aftermath of an operation against party workers – case in point, the emergence of Mohajir Qaumi Movement – Haqiqi led by Afaq Ahmed and Amir Khan, after the 1992 operation drove Altaf Hussain out of the country and forced several MQM leaders into hiding.

The role of Pakistan’s security establishment in these attempts to break the party’s hold over Karachi was apparent in 1992 and it is obvious even now. While in 1992, the men in khakis came directly to clean sweep the city of criminal elements, this time they have been replaced by the Rangers. One thing is clear: unchecked growth and militant power of the MQM was worrisome at both the times and the operations were an attempt to curtail that power. However, the strategy adopted to achieve this goal lacks insight into MQM’s structural organisation, its vote bank and reflects short-sightedness in planning.

A lesson that the establishment learned from the 1992 operation was that there are simultaneous political and militant elements within the MQM, and that the MQM as a political party is a strong force that cannot be subdued easily. This is perhaps why the ongoing operation has spared MQM’s political leadership to a great extent. Not even a single high-profile MQM leader was charged with any crimes, even those who were detained for 90 days by the Rangers, such as Amir Khan and Qamar Mansoor, have been released. Even those MQM leaders who have been nominated in cases as prime suspects have so far been spared. It seems that the establishment wants to keep the MQM intact as a political party, perhaps for nothing else but to act as a counterbalancing force to the PPP in Sindh. To do so, the operation had to make sure MQM’s street power is diminished. Altaf Hussain exercised an iron grip over the party’s sector and unit offices and this network has suffered a big blow in the recent operation.

There is a consistent oversight on the part of the planners when they swoop down over the MQM and that is the fact that any action against the party is still viewed as an attack on the Muhajir/Urdu-speaking population.

But there is a consistent oversight on the part of the planners when they swoop down over the MQM and that is the fact that any action against the party is still viewed as an attack on the Muhajir/Urdu-speaking population. We saw this in 1992 and we are witnessing it now, sympathies for the party go up whenever there is an operation against the party. These sympathies are exacerbated by the media ban on Altaf Hussain’s speeches.

Before the 2013 general elections, the MQM and the PPP had enjoyed several years of an on-and-off relationship due to which the people of the province saw little to no money spent on development. The popularity graphs of both these parties had taken a significant dip and MQM’s vote bank showed signs of looking for other options – which was offered by the PTI to some extent but that glimmer of hope died long before it started. The results of the 2013 elections and the reports of rigging that came forth indicated that the MQM ranks were worried about their lack of performance reflecting in a victory by a small margin. Altaf Hussain’s enraged speeches during the elections showed that the party was losing its grip.

But the voters that were driven away by their lack of performance came back soon after the operation began. We saw it in the major victory MQM clinched in the NA-246 by-elections in Azizabad. We saw it again in the large crowd that gathered on MQM’s Foundation Day rally on March 18. And there is a good chance we will see it again in the upcoming by-elections on April 7 when the party contests for NA-245 and PS-115 seats.

It appears so that the political party is here to stay but the same cannot be said of its leadership. Altaf Hussain faces very real challenges, both in the money laundering investigations and his health. Even though the conviction seems unlikely, the charges against Altaf Hussain are not likely to affect his popularity among supporters, and the party can adopt many means to spin a conviction into a tale of political martyrdom for the MQM chief.

It appears so that the political party is here to stay but the same cannot be said of its leadership

But in case Altaf Hussain succumbs to his poor health, the party will be in disarray, at least initially. There will be fights among the ranks about who the successor may be but, due to the weakened street power of the MQM, it is likely this fight will happen behind closed doors and very little will spill onto the streets of Karachi. As for Mustafa Kamal, it is too early to predict whether or not his party will affect MQM’s vote bank.