MQM’s moment of truth

The perception that MQM compromised on principles to get its share in every government since 1988 cannot be denied


Dr Moonis Ahmar January 24, 2023
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Science, University of Karachi and can be reached at [email protected]

"Do you (PPP) even think that the people of Karachi and Hyderabad would vote for you? Do you even imagine that people of Karachi would even consider you as an option? Never. It can never happen. Look at your performance and your policies. Not only the population of Karachi, the generations of the Karachiites to come would never vote for you. This is unjust, fake and illegal mandate which you snatched,” thundered former mayor of Karachi Wasim Akhtar a day after the local bodies’ elections were held in Karachi and Hybderabad.

Akhtar and other leaders of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) alleged that the PPP leadership, including its supremo Asif Ali Zardari, indulged in massive rigging to get a fake mandate to occupy Karachi and Hyderabad like other parts of Sindh. MQM, which boycotted local bodies’ elections at the eleventh hour, accused the PPP of reneging on the April 2022 accord on holding fresh delimitation of union councils and then resorting to worst type of rigging. Akhtar claims that the votes obtained by PPP, Jamaat-i-Islami and PTI combined in the recent elections are less than the votes that MQM had obtained in the 2015 local bodies elections, numbering more than 1.1 million.

After its steady marginalisation in urban Sindh as a result of major splits in its rank and file in 2016 and shrinking of its vote bank in the July 2018 general elections, MQM’s moment of truth has arrived. Formed in 1984, the party that revolved around its founder Altaf Hussain for decades had won local bodies elections of Karachi and Hyderabad in 1987 and swept the general elections in November 1988, October 1990, February 1997, October 2002, February 2008 and May 2013. But the same party suffered an electoral rout in July 2018 elections, bagging just seven seats from Karachi.

On the other hand, the PPP — which has since 1970 general elections secured a small number of seats from Karachi and Hyderabad and never won local bodies’ elections — emerged as the top party in the recent local bodies’ polls.

Despite Mustafa Kamal’s PSP and Farooq Sattar’s MQM rehabilitation committee merging into it, the MQM-P boycotted the January 15 elections when the ECP rejected its demand to postpone polls and order fresh delimitation of union councils.

What caused the MQM to degenerate despite the massive popularity it enjoyed for nearly three decades? Why did it deviate from the cause behind its foundation, resulting in the erosion of its popularity with the passage of time? How corruption, nepotism, violence and lust for power in its rank and file mitigated its credibility? How Zia’s dictatorial regime patronised MQM and then the same forces used strong-arm tactics to divide it from inside? The June 1992 military operation against MQM led to the emergence of a splinter group, called MQM-Haqqiqi. The rest is history. When its leadership deviated from its path and used its popularity to grab wealth and power and sought comfort zones in upper class localities and abroad, MQM’s credibility started dwindling.

The lesson one can learn from the steady decline of MQM is three-pronged.

First, unless political parties and their leadership is honest, clear-headed, courageous, single-minded and strategically visionary, it cannot yield positive results and lose its standing. MQM was a movement spearheaded by lower and lower middle class people representing Urdu speaking population, mainly in Sindh. In its formative phase, its leadership — by focusing on issues concerning Urdu speaking community like unjust quota system, non-settlement of Pakistanis stranded in refugee camps in Bangladesh, discrimination by provincial and federal governments in jobs and education, etc — gave an impetus to MQM at the grassroots level. Yet, when
its popularity surged and it achieved bargaining position in government formation after every general election, its leadership resorted to worst form of violence against its opponents; grabbed resources through extortion and intimidation; and got involved in maximising wealth and power. Those living in lower and lower middle class localities shifted to posh areas of Karachi, leaving their voters and supporters in the lurch. Those holding petty jobs accumulated enormous wealth by land grabbing, extortion and other criminal methods while the ordinary Urdu speaking community in Karachi and Hyderabad was let down and cheated. Countless examples to prove how MQM misused its popularity for personal gains reflect how that movement claiming to protect the rights of Mujahirs was more interested in settling abroad and living an affluent life.

Second, the perception that MQM compromised on principles to get its share in every government since 1988 cannot be denied. It was never comfortable with any ruling party — be it PPP, PML-N, PML-Q or PTI — and used blackmailing tactics to secure more and more privileges. MQM’s reputation shattered because of its inconsistent, unprincipled and opportunistic politics — something that diminished its vote bank. While constantly in a denial mode, MQM leadership refused to accept its failures and blunders and pursued a policy of blaming its political opponents of its electoral setbacks. What has happened to MQM is a reflection of a mindset which is neither pragmatic nor realistic in its way of thinking. But the party learnt no lessons from its debacles.

Finally, when a political party suffers decline, it is difficult to restore its position because enough damage has already been done. Same is true for MQM which took its vote bank for granted. It is the third time over the last four decades that Jamaat-i-Islami will get its Mayor in Karachi — first in 1983 when there was no MQM; second in 2001 when MQM left the ground open; and now in 2023 when MQM boycotted the local elections. Jamaat’s revival in Karachi’s local government proves its capability to bounce back. Can the MQM follow suit and bounce back in the forthcoming general elections? It seems Jamaat learnt from its past failures and Hafiz Naeem-ur-Rehman, its candidate for Karachi Mayor, worked very hard and led an effective campaign unlike MQM which till the last was not sure whether it would contest the elections or not.

Perhaps, MQM had taken the people of Karachi and Hyderabad for granted, completely forgetting that political loyalties are never permanent. When MQM lost its power addiction and the walls of fear were broken, people realised that they can exercise other options and gave their verdict — however, the turnout was low.

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