The chief of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Altaf Hussain, leads a section of opinion-makers in Pakistan demanding that ex-president Pervez Musharraf not be tried for treason. His party benefitted during the Musharraf years (1999-2008) and was able to improve its image as a development-oriented party in Karachi. The stigma attached to it as a violent organisation, using terrorism to remain dominant, was somewhat removed as it won international acclaim for its performance in municipal government.
These days, it is under pressure as never before. The current period marks a low point in its career because its leader, safely lodged in London since 1992, is under investigation for money laundering and the murder of one of his own hierarchy of exiled leaders. Its alliance with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has come apart in Sindh, where the PPP is consolidating by moving close to Sindhi subnationalism that despises the MQM, representing a non-Sindhi “interloper” population of Urdu-speaking citizens. It has had to leave the provincial coalition and is in the wilderness without its leverage of local government, which the PPP is determined to win through gerrymandering as and when the election occurs.
Yet, the MQM is the only party in Pakistan that proclaims its secularism while others avoid the label for fear of losing public support, and speaks openly of confronting and defeating the Taliban-al-Qaeda combine. As a result, a number of small communities endangered by the religious state and its non-state actors seek its protection. Take a look at its self-definition: “The objective of the party (is to achieve) the kind of change Pakistan requires as a modern, democratic, liberal state where each one of its citizens is guaranteed equality, justice and fair play. These principles have helped countries in the West and the Far East reach a level of prosperity and ensure civic rights for their people. These states, as also India next door, have reached their level of affluence by building a strong middle class, and by ensuring maximum participation of their people in the affairs of the state. The MQM too has been engaged in this task, but since it has to demolish the well-entrenched system of feudalism and tribalism, its philosophy has been resisted by almost all powerful vested interests. Journalists, unfortunately, have failed to appreciate or even understand that the attainment of such an objective is the need of the hour.”
Some analysts see fascism in the way Altaf Hussain handles the party, ruling by fear and imposing efficiency where other parties can’t prevent corruption in their ranks. He has been compared to the late Bal Thackeray, the leader of the Shiv Sena, except that the latter stood on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, promoting aggressive Hinduism behind his campaign of restoring the Maratha majority ownership of Maharashtra. The other difference between these two one-city leaders was that Hussain represented not the indigenous population against external migrants called muhajir, but the migrants under threat from indigenous continued…