Sunday’s rallies in the Punjab by the MQM mark a significant shift in strategy for the party, albeit one that it has been contemplating for quite some time. In effect the party is taking a gamble: that the urban middle class of Pakistan is relatively uniform, and therefore the MQM will be just as appealing to the Punjabi middle class as it is to the Karachi middle class. It is a somewhat optimistic bet, for it assumes that the country as a whole is developing a cohesive national identity, at least within the urban areas.
Pakistan has undergone a rapid social change over the last decade. Areas that are still officially classified as rural are no longer rural in both form and function. And with urbanisation has come a new brand of politics in which the MQM has a chance to do well against the more traditional parties. Nevertheless, the party does have quite a bit of historical baggage to deal with. For all the rhetoric of having support in the Punjab and the relatively successful four simultaneous rallies across Punjab, the party does have an image problem.
It is still viewed as a largely muhajir-dominated party and its history of violence, which the party has recently been more frank in acknowledging, is likely to make many voters sceptical. Also, the party’s image especially outside of Sindh’s urban areas took a beating after the events of May 12, 2007. For all its history of unsavoury ethnic conflict, the MQM has always been a party that attracts a relatively educated cadre from the middle and lower classes – as opposed to the feudal dominated PPP or big-business dominated PML-N. And it has been in the forefront of speaking out against militancy and demanding action against extremists.