While other political parties may have had one major rally each, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement organised two events in two days. First, a workers’ gathering at the Lal Qila Ground and then a rally at Tibet Centre in Karachi. The second was only made possible after the Home Department lifted a ban on rallies in Karachi — just a few hours after they had in fact extended the ban without informing the Sindh government. A call from high-ups then reportedly led to a two-day lifting of the ban, just enough time to allow the MQM to stage their rally.
And those rallies were staged with event management skills that would put most of Karachi’s social doyennes to shame. They went off without a hitch, but followed an identical and now familiar pattern.
Saturday night fever
Lal Qila Ground begins filling up at around 5 pm on Saturday. By 6:30 pm, I realise its time to cancel any evening plans since the meeting is only just getting underway. MQM supporters start filing into the venue, battling the evening traffic. Young men wearing dark sunglasses and clutching large photographs of Altaf Hussain try to get as close as they can to the enclosure as party songs lauding their leader and the spirit of revolution fill the air. The crowd is told to settle down and sit in orderly lines — a command they hardly need as this is a familiar pattern that the workers have learned from years of attending rallies.
Before MQM chief Altaf Hussain begins his speech, there are short speeches by other party leaders. The real show begins when it is announced that “Altaf bhai is in our midst”, prompting the DJ to play the party’s anthem “Saathi”. Party workers and leaders scramble to their feet and sing and clap along.
Hussain begins to speak and offers a ‘sketch’ of what the party’s stance is on the issue of Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif allegedly using derogatory language about President Asif Ali Zardari.
Hussain remarks on the Sharif family’s wealth, praises President Zardari and says criticism is a valid right, as long as it is done in a civil manner.
Iconic revolutionary poet Habib Jalib’s poem “Dustoor” gets another reworking at the event by Hussain. Jalib’s quite the hot ticket these days, as Shahbaz Sharif sang his words at the PML-N rally, and now Hussain — after first apologising to the late Jalib’s soul — sings another version, with the lyrics changed to critique Shahbaz’s ‘Sasti Roti’ scheme and his home in Raiwind. It’s a crowd-pleaser to be sure.
He reminds workers to be on time for the next day’s rally, where he will go into detail about the issues he’s touched on today. As the crowd makes a swift exit, I spot a journalist clutching a samosa for dear life, a snack that has been served at press conferences for decades, with the practice even being spoofed by the television show “Fifty Fifty”.
The next afternoon, the same coterie of reporters find themselves back together at the MQM event on MA Jinnah Road. There isn’t a building, window, pole or wall that doesn’t have a picture of Altaf Hussain or an MQM banner. The pedestrian bridge serves as a ‘stage’ — carpeted for the occasion — and is home to cameramen, reporters and party leaders all offering their two cents on the Sharif-Zardari issue.
MQM songs keep blaring as an emcee shouts out slogans in quick succession — Jiye Altaf, Jiye Muttahida, Yeh kis ka sooba? Altaf ka!
Hundreds of people start filling in, pouring out from buses, rickshaws and motorcycles. The crowd starts stretching out to Mazar-e-Quaid and it’s a challenge to figure out just how many people are there. The afternoon stretches on amid speeches by MQM leaders and the arrival of other political parties. The PPP delegation is all smiles and hugs, but their speeches fail to do much for the crowd. Even a call of ‘Jiye Bhutto’ by Agha Siraj Durrani barely elicits a response (but ‘Jiye Altaf’ does, leaving many smirking at Durrani). PML-Q leaders arrive, leaving the crowded pedestrian bridge looking like an old-school political reunion, while cameramen and photographers try to click them sitting amicably together.
Hussain’s arrival is announced again amid cheers and a repeat of “Saathi”, with tens of thousands clapping and singing along. The song ends and Hussain begins his speech, more or less a repeat of Saturday’s fare. The crowd listens, claps at appropriate moments and then the speech ends. Drivers of the Land Cruisers and Pajeros that have brought the PPP and PML-Q delegations to the venue rev up the engines as the politicians jump in, some lighting up cigarettes instantly. The MQM supporters meet their leaders — some ask for photographs — and others make their way back to their buses and motorcycles, still clutching party flags.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 6th, 2011.