Muttahida Forever?

Published in The Express Tribune

It was 1965, and the presidential polls were in full swing. Field Marshal Ayub Khan swayed supreme: yet to be bruised by war and battered by Bhutto (his covering candidate at the time).

But the challenger was no pushover: Fatima Jinnah, having seen her brother’s dream go off the rails, was up against the generalissimo. And all the country was at stake.

Pakistan was 18 years old at the time and, like many 18-year-olds, the decisions it made would set the tone for the rest of its life. Yet we ended up with not one but two sad endings.

The first most people know about: the polls were rigged, the field marshal won, and Ms. Jinnah was never the same again – passing away two years later.

The second sad ending had as much consequence as the first: when pro-Ayub thugs swept into Karachi. The Muhajir community had thrown its lot behind Fatima Jinnah, and Ayub’s men were out for revenge. Their ‘victory parade’ turned into a bloodbath: Karachi’s first major ethnic riot, with Muhajirs attacked in the streets.

And it ended up scarring a 12-year-old kid. In his book, My Life’s Struggle, Altaf Hussain writes how the episode eventually drove him to student politics.

But that was then, and this is now. To see Mr. Hussain’s latest video address – in which he mentions brains, bullets, and blows-by-hammer – the pain of the past fades. It’s an old Untouchables line (via the erudite Feisal H. Naqvi): ‘I have become what I beheld, and I am content.’

But the Rangers have little time for moral equivalences. They’ve been moving in for years now, and the Muttahida is feeling the heat. Only this time, things are different. In the old days, the Muttahida’s narrative of persecution had many takers: after all, the Movement Enemies (General Babar & Co.) – were ferocious, and the state was against them, and just them.

Today, that doesn’t wash: the MQM’s own have dark and disturbing stories to tell – the RAW training and nightmarish phone calls; the place where Saulat Mirzas and Ajmal Paharis crawl out of.

Take Baldia Town: over two hundred people were burnt alive in a factory fire, the worst industrial disaster in the country’s history. While MQM lawmakers promised to compensate the families of those charred even beyond basic identification, it is now becoming evident that the problem lay inward: the party’s notorious extortion tactics seem to have degenerated into full-blown arson in Baldia’s case, with mass murder the result. If proven, MQM partisans will be responsible for the single deadliest attack on a civilian population ever – civil or military, terror or common crime. It is a staggering denouement.

That this is out in the open was unthinkable just a year ago: the party’s grip was such that the press could only tut-tut over acts of incredible violence: ‘strong-arm tactics,’ they’d whisper, or ‘roguish elements’. An alien that landed in Karachi could be forgiven for thinking the Muttahida was more a rowdy fraternity than, essentially, a paramilitary outfit – with cadres and sectors and units.

But it’s not the same. The Muttahida, once known for the sort of ‘party discipline’ Mao would be proud of, is tearing at the seams – split into more factions than the Muslim Leagues.

Part of this is Ranger fatigue. The other part is the boss himself: a disembodied voice screaming ‘Pakistan murdabad’ from Edgware, before blaming it on his stress levels. The voter now gets to pick between the mothership in London, Dr. Sattar’s franchise in Karachi, Mustafa Kamal’s warmed-over Haqiqi, and lest we forget, the actual Haqiqi boys themselves.

All music to Islamabad’s ears. For the party’s critics, the MQM is a fascist pyramid – the more it breaks off, the less hard it is to hit.

And yet there’s no way out of this one: Altaf’s posters may be torn down from Mukka Chowk, the mayor-elect may be put behind bars, the sector-in-charges’ offices bulldozed away. Best case scenario: violence in Karachi, ebbing since 2013, will take another dive.

But that won’t cure Karachi – this is fighting the symptoms, not the cause. The ugly truth, whatever the PTI says, is that MQM is not voted in by an army of oppressed zombies. The khauf ki fiza did not compel them to cast over 95,000 votes in NA-246.

It’s too early to tell which new offshoot the Muttahida voter will gravitate towards. But the MQM, in whatever shape or form, is going nowhere. At least, not until the divisions that plague this city – so exploited by the party – fester.

The quota system, a conceit carried over from the Bhutto days, continues all this time later, keeping Muhajirs out of places that should be theirs by merit. Meanwhile Mr. Bhutto’s heirs, the Sindh government, refuse to devolve its powers, leaving the city in a perpetual grey zone of governance – watching citizens fall down manholes and garbage pile up to the skies. Larkana has no time for Karachi, and Islamabad has no time for either of them.

And the Muttahida was, is, and remains the only platform for anyone with upward-mobility goals: the other parties’ leaderships have made it, and now their kids are going to make it too. That the same modern, middle-class Muttahida is divided, dysfunctional, and outrageously violent, might be a contradiction in terms for the Karachi voter.

But until the city is healed or, at least, until a credible alternative appears, the MQM’s vote-bank will remain. Though it may well surprise Karachi in the coming elections, the PTI has thus far lost out on its 2013 gains, the PPP has been beaten back since forever, and the Jamaat was evicted a lifetime ago.

Certainly, the stats tell us Karachi is better than before, that the death toll is nowhere as high as it was from three years ago. But the fact the city is no longer in the civil war it found itself in 2012, is hardly anyone’s idea of a happy ending. Nor can there be one – until the root causes are addressed, until the deprivation is cured.

As long as Karachi is treated like a stepchild, we may well be looking at Muttahida forever.