Altaf Bhai’s Convenient Conscience

Ayaz Amir hits the nail on the head last week in his column for The News, “Fresh takes on patriotism”. Amir is annoyed with MQM chief Altaf’s recent outbursts about martial law, of course, and flays them with the sharp wit that he has come to be known for, taking no mercy on Altaf’s own political opportunism and turning a blind eye to corruption when it served his own purposes.

Among the chattering classes–mercifully, irrelevant politically–there have been voices calling for regime change. But the drumbeat sounded by Altaf Bhai is the loudest and most unambiguous clarion call for Pakistan’s fifth military coup. MQM spokesmen, masters of the shrill and loud word and who have little to learn from Goebbels, are bending over backwards trying to explain what Altaf Bhai meant. But the meaning is clear. Wading in where others would have feared to enter, he has raised the first welcoming flag for the army to march into the political arena, all in the name of patriotism.

I can’t help but think of the phony patriotism of the New Feudals so prevalent in the media. Or the self-appointed patriots like Ahmed Quraishi and Zaid Hamid, always declaring themselves the real sons of the nation from the comfort of their climate controlled studios and European suits, never getting their hands dirty with people who actual struggle in this country.

There’s a common thread, isn’t there, with Ahmed Quraishi’s groveling before Musharraf and Altaf Hussain’s being doing his master’s bidding in trying to keep Iftikhar Chaudhry off the bench, only to turn their backs on their master when they thought his time was up?

When Musharraf was a senior staff officer in General Headquarters, the then army chief, Gen Waheed Kakar, used to call him “my MQM general”, because of his perceived sympathies in that direction. Musharraf lived up to this description when soon after his coup he cracked down on Altaf Bhai’s nemesis, Afaq Ahmed and his MQM-Haqiqi, and virtually handed over the keys of Karachi to Altaf Hussain.

Altaf Bhai repaid the favour by becoming Musharraf’s staunchest ally. For Musharraf’s principal adviser, Tariq Aziz, MQM headquarters in London used to be a regular port of call. May 12, 2007, when the MQM, at Musharraf’s behest paralysed Karachi, setting off an upsurge of violence which left scores killed and injured, just to prevent Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry from touring the city, was a telling sign of the nexus between Musharraf and the MQM.

But May 12 was a disaster all the same, doing nothing to improve the MQM’s image in the rest of the country. Instead the impression was further reinforced that the politics of violence was an integral part of the party’s ethos.

But when Musharraf’s time was up the MQM quickly adjusted its sights and positioned itself for the new turn of events. Becoming a coalition partner of the PPP’s, it not only held on to its position as a key player in Sindh and at the centre but pushed constantly to acquire more advantage and expand its sphere of influence, in the process giving an entirely new meaning to the concept of extracting one’s pound of flesh. Shylock could have learned a thing or two from this virtuosity.

It seems that Altaf’s conscience too is rather convenient – only popping up when it suits his next move, at other times missing. He claims today that he’s out to squash corruption in government (a problem, to be sure, but while the nation is underwater, is it really the most pressing problem we have?) But this never seemed to bother him in the past.

Musharraf promoted and protected some of the worst thieves in the country’s history during his 8 1/2 years in power, virtually institutionalising corruption on a grand scale. The MQM did not seem particularly outraged. Altaf Bhai is now talking about an independent foreign policy and not bowing to American dictates. Strange that this line should be coming from someone who seemed perfectly at ease when Musharraf was creating a virtual cult dedicated to bowing to American dictates.

But perhaps it’s just natural for Altaf to join the merry band of New Feudals such as Ansar Abbasi and Khawaja Sharif and all the others. Feudalism is in his blood. It’s certainly in the bood of MQM. Or rather, the blodd that MQM has spilled.

The MQM’s outrage or rather bombast against feudalism is also a bit surprising. Feudalism is alive in interior Sindh and southern Punjab. It is a waning if not an extinct force in the rest of Punjab and most of Pakhtunkhwa. But in Karachi and Hyderabad a new kind of feudalism has taken root, with the MQM protecting its turf and preserving its influence in a ruthless manner now lost to the dying force of feudalism elsewhere in the country.

Even as the country is drowning in the worst floods in Pakistan’s history, target killings continue in Karachi, their victims mostly the poor and the worst off along the social scale. This is a grim reminder of the kind of politics in play in Pakistan’s largest city and its commercial and industrial capital.

Once called the City of Lights–how distant that time seems–Karachi now is transfixed by the evil eye, organised and systematic violence at the service of politics, violence an integral part of the city’s increasingly disordered skyline. Traditional feudalism, a curse in every other sense, was positively benign compared to this new feudalism empowered or rather entrenched in Pakistan’s southern reaches.

Of course, as always, these New Feudals are also a brotherhood of convenience only, with no real principles to guide them other than the hope of a more prosperous next step in their careers. Perhaps Ansar Abbasi might want to watch his back.

To get a measure of this feudalism’s reach, and the aura it commands, we can look at another indicator. The media is free in all of Pakistan. It is less than free, its freedom tempered, in the afore-mentioned southern reaches. Hinting at things obliquely, talking in circles, is also an indication of this same power.

At the end of it all, Altaf’s move backfired.

But there is still hope in that this gambit has been attacked from all sides, the MQM as isolated on this score as it was on the evening of May 12. Which only goes to show that even the best masters of political timing can sometimes miscalculate and get things seriously wrong.

There’s an important reason for this and it’s quite simple. Despite the drawing room schemes of elitists and their media facilitators, the people aren’t interested in reliving the past. We’re interested in moving forward, and we’re not falling for the same old tricks by the same old tricksters. If Altaf Hussain and all the others really want to do right by the country, they’ll do right by the country and stop trying to only do right by themselves.

Source: new Pakistan



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