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The Muttahida Qaumi Movement is one of the most enigmatic political parties. It has been enjoying overwhelming support in Karachi and Hyderabad ever since the late 1980s, in the process becoming perhaps the country’s first true urban party with a significant middle and lower-middle class support and leadership. Beginning life as a representative of urban Sindh’s Urdu-speakers (Mohajirs), the MQM, at least in theory, shed its ethnic make-up in 1997, even though its core support still stems from the Mohajir community.
Ideologically the party has stood for many things, from Mohajir rights, to secularism to local and development-oriented democracy. Nevertheless, recently it has been increasingly moving towards issues being championed by the country’s small but loud religious groups and right-wing elements in the media. From 1984 till about 1998, the MQM was embroiled in a battle of both wits and fists with the state by practising a rather militant brand of politics, whose roots lay in the economic and political stress that Karachi suffered since the influx of Afghan refugees during the Pakistan-US-backed ‘anti-Soviet jihad’ in Afghanistan.
It was the MQM’s constant electoral strength that kept the organisation intact in the face of the violence it faced (and indulged in) from and against the state and the Sindh-based Afghans and Pakhtuns and political parties like the PPP and the Jamat-i-Islami (JI). The MQM’s activism remained inherently secular mainly due to the fact that it had wiped out the political support religious parties like the JI and Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP) had enjoyed in the city before the rise of the MQM.
When state action against the party came to a halt at the start of the Musharraf regime in 1999, the MQM rapidly evolved into a publicly confessed secular party with a penchant to undertake widespread developmental work in Karachi and a taste for popular local politics. Though throughout the last decade the perception of it being a militant ethnic outfit remained engrained among political groups operating outside Sindh, in the province’s urban centres however, the MQM successfully devised itself as a hands-on, liberal-bourgeoisie outfit.
Throughout the Musharraf regime the MQM remained an integral part of the political scheme and became one of the most vocal opponents of religious extremism and the Taliban while concentrating on strengthening the positive image it had constructed for itself as a party skilled in pulling off vital development projects in Karachi and Hyderabad. After Musharraf’s unceremonious departure, the MQM joined the PPP-led coalition government but eventually its functioning as a federal and provincial-level party failed to match the role it was enjoying as a local level when the PPP-led government suspended the local bodies system.
Musharraf’s departure also saw the relative growth of the Pakhtun nationalist party, the ANP, in Karachi’s Pakhtun-dominated areas as well as of groups close to the PPP in Karachi’s Baloch/Sindhi dominated neighbourhoods. The MQM, the ANP and the PPP (all secular in outlook) are the most prominent parties in Karachi. However ever since the 1980s, the city’s politics has been such that all these parties have had to retain large numbers of armed cadres to keep a presence in Karachi’s street politics.
Many of these cadres are involved in various property-grabbing scams and other criminal mafias, all looking to their respective political parties for patronage. There was thus bound to be trouble due to the animosity between these groups with overlapping economic and political interests. Being struck by the cross-fire are smaller groups such as the Sunni Thereek (ST) and other, militant, organisations that are trying to not only gain support from the vacuum being created by the MQM-ANP-PPP tussle on the streets, but to also venture into the same shady endeavors being indulged in by the more anarchic cadres of the MQM, ANP and the PPP.
Finding itself on the back foot in this respect, the MQM’s top leadership has increasingly begun to shed its secular and liberal skin. It has not only been returning to expressing its besieged mindset of the 1980s that generated the birth of the MQM, but the party is also retreating further back into appealing to the political conservatism that was exhibited by Karachi’s middle-class before the rise of the MQM.
In the last six months or so, the MQM’s rhetoric against extremism and the Taliban and its stance against political-religious parties are slowly being replaced with rhetorical idioms that are re-enacting the party’s old persecution-complex as well as incorporating issues close to small right-wing parties and the populist media. There is talk among supporters who suggest that the party’s changing of gears is also a way to get positive attention from the people of Punjab and some ‘agencies’ said to be champions of the anti-West/India mindset.
But playing to the gallery of this section by suddenly questioning the merits of liberal ideals, and sympathetically relating the heartburn being felt by what is called the ‘ghairat brigade’ over issues such as Aafia Siddiqui’s indictment, Raymond Davis’ release, drone attacks, etc., the MQM has, at best, left large sections of its support feeling rather confused – especially the generation of supporters who’ve come of age during the party’s secular phase in the last decade or so.