The Bizarre World of Karachi Politics

Recent Features

Features | Politics | South Asia

The Bizarre World of Karachi Politics

Anti-Pakistan rhetoric and a mayor ruling from jail – under MQM control, Pakistan’s largest city is never boring.

The Bizarre World of Karachi Politics

Supporters of MQM hold pictures of party head Altaf Hussain while chanting slogans during a rally in Karachi, Pakistan (September 13, 2015).

Credit: REUTERS/Athar Hussain

Karachi, the financial heart of Pakistan, is a sprawling metropolis built where the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea meet. Dubbed the “Paris of Asia” during the British Raj, it is home to 23 million people — a number likely off by a couple million due to Pakistan’s poor census record keeping. Built on the backs of migrants, the city — today the seventh-largest in the world — wears the marks of her history with pride. Megasized luxury malls rising up amidst bullet-riddled walls bearing sectarian graffiti are daily reminders of the city’s burgeoning cultural and fashion scene, which runs parallel to the daily civil unrest and violence that takes, on average, the lives of half a dozen people daily.

For the people of Karachi, life in the last 30 years has been replete with frequent bouts of looting, riots, acts of terrorism, and sectarian strife — routine matters that take place with conveyor belt like regularity. Amidst this chaos and bloodshed is Altaf Hussain, the larger-than-life, unwavering, maverick leader of Karachi’s most powerful political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Hussain, known to his loyalists as Bhai (brother), has enjoyed a cult-like, undisputed reign over the city since the inception of his mighty political machine in the late 1980s. The MQM prides itself on doing what it feels the rest of Pakistan (particularly, the Punjab-centric majority of the country) fails to do for the people of Karachi: protecting the rights of the downtrodden Mohajir population (Muslim migrants who settled in Pakistan from India post-partition).

The MQM pegs its reign to have begun in earnest on October 31, 1986, when a convoy of its party vehicles were attacked after MQM’s inaugural public rally by Islamist parties in control of Karachi at the time. But some historians date the real start of MQM’s influence to April 15, 1985, when a mob of party loyalists took to the streets in violent protest torching over 150 buses after a Mohajir college girl was killed by a reckless Pathan bus driver.

Since then, the MQM has had two constants. First, the party, which is jokingly referred to as a militant party with a political arm, has had a hand in nearly every sectarian or politically motivated horror to plague the city (whether as victim or perpetrator). Second, Altaf Hussain has been the party’s continuous undisputed and untouchable leader, with a God-like reverence demonstrated by the party slogan: “He who betrays Altaf deserves death.”

The Bhai is a man with a penchant for life’s finer things. He loves his drink. He loves money (and was recently arrested on money laundering charges after being found with over half a million pounds in cash). He loves the sound of his voice. And so, despite leading the party remotely from London (his home of the past two decades following a self-imposed exile), Hussain makes sure his voice is broadcast regularly to the masses so that he can wax eloquent, on the regular, about his many dislikes: the Pakistani Army, the Karachi Rangers, leaders of other ruling parties, the Pakistani Taliban, and the foolish people who strip down posters of his face. And, the Bhai loves the power and sway he has over his loyal rabble-rousers who are always at the ready to shut the city down over the slightest perceived wrong to MQM.

Perhaps, most of all, the Bhai loves exaggerating his actions for dramatic effect. In 1979 when MQM was a fledgling university club, Hussain notoriously set the Pakistani flag on fire in an episode of symbolic gusto. In recent years, Hussain has, in his usual manner of theatrical grandstanding, cursed judges, lambasted Pakistan’s military top brass, called for violence against members of the media, and accused the country’s army of working with countries against Pakistan.

But despite years of political grandstanding verging on slander, MQM’s top officials have refrained from publicly distancing the party from their ever more controversial leader, choosing instead to vent behind closed doors.

All that changed after Hussain’s August 22 speech, when the erratic party leader tripped over the fine line of state criticism into treasonous territory. He declared Pakistan a “cancer to the world,” wildly chanted “Pakistan Murdabad” (“Death to Pakistan”), and called for his followers to take action against media groups for refusing to broadcast his image and words.

The impact of the speech was immediate. In typical MQM loyalist fashion, hundreds took to the streets in violent protest and attacked the offices of media houses ARY and Geo News, leaving one dead and countless injured. In the wake of the damage, Hussain, who is now facing treason charges, went into damage control mode, apologizing to the Army and the country citing severe mental stress.

Despite the immediate retraction and apology, shortly after, in what has been deemed an unprecedented and defiant step in MQM’s colorful history, the Pakistan-based party leadership appeared to be ready to, at long last, cut loose the slow motion trainwreck that has been Altaf Hussain over the years.

In the past week alone, Farooq Sattar (who is listed as MQM leader on party registration documents and will be the next in line to lead MQM) has publicly distanced the party twice from Hussain. Sattar stated in no uncertain terms, “We own that there is a problem, and Altaf Hussain keeps asking for forgiveness. Until this issue is addressed, we’ve decided that sanity should prevail [and] the MQM should operate from Pakistan alone.”

Not everyone is convinced that Sattar’s remarks will amount to the actual splintering of one of Pakistan’s most powerful, oldest, and, arguably, an incredibly well-run political party.

“MQM represents a sentiment that goes beyond a political entity and Altaf. It may well divide or be divided into multiple political forces but over time [these factions] will come to voice the same concerns and raise the similar issues [on the rights of the Mohajir],” journalist Ali Mustafa, who has covered Karachi extensively, told The Diplomat.

Certainly, if the MQM distancing itself from Altaf for the time being is a mere cosmetic strategy—a band-aid to temporarily close the wounds of an outraged, fed-up city—the fact is that the Karachi of today is not the Altaf-hypnotized Karachi of 30 years ago.

“Even if the reasons behind MQM remain the same, the method of doing business and getting things done in Karachi has changed. This Karachi is not the Karachi of the 1970s with its university campus-driven activism and the social revisionist experiments of the Bhutto era. Today’s Karachi has a stronger identity that transcends ethno-lingual divisions,” said Mustafa.

Mustafa believes that Altaf Hussain’s folly lies in his failure to realize how the city he permanently left 20 years ago has since transformed to become more Karachi-centric and less focused on the Mohajir, Pashtun, and Sindhi ethnic divisions that dominated the political discourse in the early years of Hussain’s rule.

It seems that the once violence-riddled city of Karachi is desperately trying to rouse itself awake from its nightmarish existence — an existence best summarized by a quote from the famous U.S. gangster, Al Capone: “You can get more with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.”

“The kind of muscle-flexing that Altaf Hussain’s speeches would incite, resulting in the shutting down of shops, riots and armed violence on streets, and physical and financial collateral damage, [was not] demonstrated last week in Karachi. This is largely due to the hold the paramilitary force [Karachi Rangers] has acquired over the city now,” Zoha Waseem, a doctoral candidate and researcher on Karachi, told The Diplomat. “This is a period in which the civ-mil establishment is trying to rebuild Pakistani nationalism and patriotism through extensive media propaganda… In such an environment, anti-Pakistan rhetoric is not going to float easily, especially if it is coming from a political group that is suffering at the hands of the ongoing Rangers-led operation in [Karachi].”

But does increased patriotism and civic pride mean Altaf Hussain’s captivating hold on Karachi is truly diminished? Is the Bhai to be relegated to the footnotes of Karachi’s history books?

Those familiar with the complexities of politics in Karachi do not think so.

“Splintering, defections, demolishing of political offices, and a public denunciation of Altaf Hussain and his speeches are cosmetic measures which can weaken Bhai but not dislodge him from the pinnacle of power. He enjoys a cult following amongst the Urdu-speaking community of Karachi, who see him as their messiah and so-called father of the nation,” said Abdul Basit, an associate research fellow with the Singapore-based International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research.

“Altaf Hussain is MQM and MQM is Altaf Hussain. The rest is chaan boora (sawdust),” Basit told The Diplomat.

Waseem, echoing Basit’s sentiments, notes that “Altaf Hussain will remain a symbol that the party and a generation of workers and voters look toward and are organized under, whether or not his decision making powers [within the MQM] are reduced over time.”

Indeed, MQM has been Karachi’s mainstream political party for a long time. Strategically, however, it has always billed itself as an outlier party operating from the fringe frontlines in the fight for the rights of fellow outlier minorities. MQM does not simply act as a government; it acts as a society unto itself. Indeed, its founder has refused from the onset to treat his organization as a mere political party. Instead, Altaf Hussain has, since day one, attempted to dismantle and challenge the entire idea of politics.

“MQM’s history is still being written. There are more memorable moments to come,” believes Waseem.

Already the strange and shocking — which has long been the MQM’s mandate in conducting its politics — has transpired.

Following Hussain’s major oratorical mishap last week, MQM’s top officials capitalized on the media spotlight and attempted to deflect their party leader’s blunder by quickly appointing Waseem Akhtar as mayor of Karachi. Akhtar will begin his service from his current digs — a jail cell where he has been imprisoned on charges of inciting 2007’s citywide protests, which left dozens dead, and for providing medical assistance to terrorists. The same Akhtar, as of August 30, accepted the heavyweight task of serving as mayor to one of the world’s largest, most complex cities.

While a confused international community stands scratching its head on the sidelines, Karachi remains nonplussed. For her, this is another day, another political appointment.

“We do not function according to formal rigid rules in Pakistan,” explains Waseem. “A prison cell is not necessarily a legal barrier for contesting elections. There are always ways of working around the system or bypassing it [entirely].”

Ultimately, those interviewed seem to agree: just like Hussain’s banishment from MQM is likely a temporary, symbolic measure — an attempt at much-needed damage control after yet another impulse-control failure on part of Hussain — the appointment of Akhtar is also likely temporary and symbolic.

“Whether the city will actually be ‘ruled’ by Waseem Akhtar remains to be seen. This may be a position for the time being until [a] more convenient political solution” comes along, Wassem said.

Maria Kari is a U.S.-based freelance writer and lawyer. Her work frequently appears in a variety of publications including Salon.com, The Nation, NPR, and Pakistan’s Dawn News.