The Curious Case of Altaf Hussain
A labor convention organized by MQM in 2010. In the background, supporters hold up photos of Altaf Hussain.

The Curious Case of Altaf Hussain


For many, Muttahida Quami Movement’s (MQM) founding leader Altaf Hussain is a political enigma. They believe there is a method to his madness that shows through his rabble-rousing oratory and his rollercoaster style of politics. Since joining mainstream Pakistani politics in 1984, his party has been in and out of different governments as well as being on the right and the wrong side of Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, for different reasons.

Hussain’s anti-Pakistan speech on August 22 was not the first or, perhaps, the last time that he has engaged in a head on confrontation with the country’s powerful military establishment. Staying true to his colors, as in the past, he rendered an immediate apology for his oratorical gaffe after kicking up a political storm. However on August 23, he made even more venomous anti-Pakistan statements while speaking to his supporters in the United States by telephone.

Like his mercurial personality, Hussain’s political career is equally mystifying. Despite a hostile media campaign, the ongoing paramilitary operation in Karachi, allegations of money laundering and criminal charges in the U.K. following Dr. Imran Farooq’s murder, his vote bank has remained largely intact.  MQM’s impressive electoral performance in the 2013 general elections, subsequent by-polls, and the recent local government elections testify to this assertion. Moreover, since its inception, MQM has consistently swept the polls (except the 1993 elections for National Assembly elections, which the party boycotted) in Karachi, Pakistan’s financial capital.

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Notwithstanding a plethora of internal and external challenges confronting Altaf Hussain, his unflinching support and consolidated vote bank in urban Sindh’s Urdu-speaking community not only irks the curiosity of outside observers but also vexes his political opponents. More perplexingly, until recently, Hussain’s two-and-half decades of exile had not weakened his iron grip on the party affairs that he literally remote controlled from London. His phone calls were enough to shut down Karachi for days.

A nuanced understanding of this enigmatic phenomenon can be helpful in assessing whether Hussain will be able to weather the latest political storm he has kicked up, or is his long political career is finally ending.  More importantly, is MQM, the party that prided itself on slogans like “Hameen Manzil Naheen Rehnuma Chaye” (“We do not want the destination but the leader”) ready to move on without its founding father?

One across-the-board-criticism against MQM has been why it calls Altaf Hussain Quaid-i-Tehrik (Father of the Nation). To be fair to MQM, it is not the only party or movement to use such nomenclature for its leader. All ethnic, social, and ideological movements have a center of gravity, which functions as a unifying force and galvanizing factor. This center of gravity can be an ideological consciousness or a mythical figure. It can take the form of a cult following or the shape of a hierarchical sociopolitical or religio-ideological movement.

For instance, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, considered the Gandhi of Pashtuns, was the spiritual figurehead of Pashtuns. In the 1970s, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto became Quaid-i-Awam for the Sindhis. In the contemporary Baloch nationalist struggle, the late Nawab Akbar Bugti has attained the status of the Baloch movement’s father figurehead. In the same vein, the Urdu-speaking community of urban Sindh considers Altaf Hussain as the movement’s Quaid-i-Tahrik, which is consistent with historical patterns of social and ethnic movements.

Hussain enjoys a cult following among the Muhajir community that has been built around a combination of respect, reverence, and fear. Paradoxically, his followers love him as much as they fear him, but they do not necessarily hate him.  In their estimation (inculcated through political training, tarbiati nashists), disloyalty or revolt against Bhai is a betrayal which should be punishable by death. Conversely, the fear of the death penalty ensures unquestioned and unconditional loyalty to the persona of Altaf Hussain.

Given the above, the absence of a genuine political alternative in Karachi has further entrenched and perpetuated Hussain’s iron grip over the movement and its followers. Moreover, the “othering” of the Urdu speaking community further opens up the political space for Altaf Hussain.

There is a fundamental disconnect between those who view MQM from the outside and those who view it from inside. For the former, MQM is a troublemaker and the problem child of Pakistani politics. For the latter, MQM is a troubleshooter of their grievances and the torchbearer of the non-feudal, urban middle class politics. The outside observer sees the party through the narrow lens of Karachi and its security. The insider sees it through the broad lens of Karachiwalas and their political rights. One believes fixing the city’s security and infrastructural problems would address the issues of the city dwellers. Conversely, the other school of thought believes that giving legitimate political rights to city dwellers would bring peace to Karachi. For one Karachi is the subject and Karachiwalas are the object of politics, while for the other Karachiwalas are the subjects and Karachi is the object of politics. There are two diametrically opposite mind-sets.

If history is any guide, Altaf Hussain cannot be maneuvered, banned, or removed from political existence sans a genuine internal political transformation. In the past, the double ban on the National Awami Party by General Yahya Khan and Bhutto did not eliminate the former’s political existence. Similarly, the tried and tested “Minus One Formula” against Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif also proved short term. In addition, all the political entities that sprouted under the umbrella of the military establishment were stopgap measures. They died a death of their own once they outlived their political utility. The cases of PML-Q carved out of PML-N, PPP-Patriot from PPP, or MQM-Haqiqi out of MQM are cases in point. The future of PSP is a foregone conclusion. Therefore, the ongoing efforts to manipulate the unfolding political process in Karachi can have negative fallouts. The last thing the security establishment can think of is the disintegration of MQM.

Abdul Basit is an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

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