|All’s well that ends well: Prime Minister Gillani announcing a truce between his government’s coalition partners,during a visit to the MQM’s headquarters in Karachi, 7 January. He is flanked by (from left) Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah and Governor Ishrat Ul Ebad Khan
Photo credit: Asim Rehmani
Nowadays, 27 December is marked on the calendar of every leader and activist of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) as the day to convene in Garhi Khuda Bux – Benazir Bhutto’s ancestral village and final resting place – to commemorate the slain leader’s death anniversary. On that date in 2010, President Asif Ali Zardari, Bhutto’s widower, concluded a seemingly triumphant speech before his party by declaring that the government would complete its five-year tenure. Just a couple of hours later, the PPP’s most significant coalition partner, the largely Sindh-based Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), announced it was quitting the federal cabinet. The PPP euphoria was over even before it had sunk in among the rank and file.
The MQM’s message was clear: the government could not merely assume that all was well, or that coalition partners would silently acquiesce to rising unemployment, rocketing inflation and the continued poor welfare of citizens. However, the timing of the MQM’s decision did raise a few eyebrows. Just a week earlier, on 14 December, the right-wing Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, had decided to call it quits after Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani had shown the door to two members of his cabinet – the JUI-F’s Federal Science and Technology Minister Azam Khan Swati and the PPP’s Religious Affairs Minister Hamid Saeed Kazmi – on charges of indiscipline and corruption. Swati had testified against Kazmi before the Supreme Court in a case pertaining to the latter’s alleged corruption in the 2010 Hajj arrangements. A day earlier, both men had been warned by the prime minister to end their sparring, but Swati went forward anyway.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman complained that his party had not been taken into confidence regarding the sacking, and made any return contingent on the removal of the prime minister. In this, the JUI-F’s calculation hinged on two factors: that the Nawaz Sharif-led Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), the primary opposition at the Centre and the majority party in the Punjab government, would turn the tables on the PPP; and that the MQM, discontent with a new taxation policy and political disorder in Sindh, would follow the JUI-F out of the government.
Flirtations between the JUI-F and MQM continued for some time, though any alliance between the JUI-F, MQM and PML-N would have been short-lived. In the past, the JUI-F has been purported to have close links with the Taliban. For its part, the PML-N’s conservative outlook makes it a viable partner for religio-political parties, but the MQM continues to maintain a staunchly liberal outlook. Even if this alliance were to prevail, the PPP’s newfound association with the PML-Q – the former ruling party under General Musharraf – meant that Sharif’s party could comfortably be toppled in Punjab, its bastion of support. In the wider political scenario, the PML-N thus deemed it wise not to be thrust in a position of steering the country in times of economic crises.
Once a rogue
JUI-F’s stated reason for quitting the government was the sacking of its minister. But in reality, the government’s pliancy before the US and a public debate on the merits of the country’s blasphemy laws were the sticking points (see accompanying article by Husain Naqi). The resignations in fact constituted pressure tactics aimed at forcing the government to give in. Indeed, the debate over the blasphemy laws propelled Rehman back into the limelight, with his public appearances having increased dramatically in recent months.
The MQM’s grouse with the government was different. On 13 December, Sindh Home Minister Zulfiqar Mirza, also the PPP’s vice-president in the province, launched an attack on the MQM, accusing it of ‘running extortion cells and patronising professional assassins’. He also claimed that 26 of the 60 target killers nabbed by the Sindh government belonged to ‘Karachi’s largest party’. This stoked the flames between the PPP and the MQM, with relations already tense over the imposition of a new tax. Today’s MQM is especially concerned with proving itself to be a genuine political party, with roots in all four provinces. Yet its violent past in Karachi and Hyderabad translates into the PPP casting aspersions over the party’s merits and credentials. While PPP leaders often point to Pakistan Army-led operations against the MQM – stopping short of accusing the MQM of fascism, the MQM argues that it is a party that has evolved out of a social movement for rights and justice. This differentiation is not to be understated, as it is this difference that embeds an inherent distrust between the two parties.
During the early 1990s, the MQM was still a developing party, then named the Mohajir Qaumi Movement (Movement of the Mohajir Nation). At the time, it was struggling not only to safeguard the rights of the Urdu-speaking population that had migrated from India after Partition, but was also to grow into a political entity of note in Karachi and Hyderabad. Many scholars have argued that the MQM was created by the military establishment as a counterweight to the PPP, with the aim of dividing the population of Sindh along ethnic lines. If this were true, it follows that, like other policies formulated by the Pakistani establishment, this was a half-baked measure; the military-bureaucracy nexus based in Punjab found little space to accommodate the MQM in government once it had gathered steam.
This meant that the MQM’s desire to be recognised found violent manifestations. Karachi, and to a lesser extent Hyderabad, became highly weaponised cities, as both the PPP and the PML under Nawaz Sharif sought the establishment’s aid in quelling MQM resistance. The military operations of the early 1990s might have suppressed the MQM into submission, but it was also the army, under Gen Musharraf, that provided the party with a platform on which to emerge as a liberal, national party. Having displaced Nawaz Sharif and his PML in 1999, Musharraf needed legitimacy. His philosophy of ‘enlightened moderation’ necessitated parties that could offer a relatively forward-thinking, modernist version of Pakistan, as opposed to the Taliban-inspired regime of Sharif. It was around the same time that the MQM underwent a metamorphosis, shedding its image of violence in favour of a more democratic outlook. Old leaders were replaced with a new generation of young, urbane individuals, in an attempt to appeal to a new demographic.
Gen Musharraf’s autocracy brought with it a local government system that aimed to devolve power to the level of the grassroots. Power at the local level reverberated with the MQM’s voter base; and while it did not participate in the first local government elections, the party swept the second in both Karachi and Hyderabad. Backed by the philosophy of turning Pakistan’s metropolises into global cities, the MQM had seemingly changed into a modernising force – no longer a rogue party.
Throughout Musharraf’s regime, the PPP tried to negotiate its way back into power but was largely unsuccessful. By the time the party returned to power in 2008, Benazir had been assassinated and Zardari assumed power as president. But his past, blighted by unproven allegations of corruption, made him highly vulnerable. It thus made sense for him to become friends with most, if not all, political forces, done under the guise of ‘reconciliation’. But as 27 December 2010 proved, even this reconciliation was not without strings.
The post-Musharraf reality that PPP had returned to in Karachi was a city increasingly fragmented on ethnic lines. Apart from the PPP and the MQM, the ANP had become a major stakeholder; not only had the Pashtun migrant workforce swelled in numbers, but the ‘war on terror’ meant had forced many to migrate from the erstwhile NWFP. The MQM warned of a threat of Talibanisation with this influx, while the ANP (Awami National Party) leadership claimed that Pashtun culture compelled them to welcome family and friends.
Perhaps the most detrimental legacy of Gen Musharraf was replacing the culture of negotiating disputes democratically with that of dispute resolution through the barrel of a gun. All mainstream parties in the city today operate militant wings, which also provide backing to various mafias that burgeon when resources become scarce. The withering of politics has also meant that smaller disputes at the level of Karachi or Sindh now have a propensity to assume more significant proportion in terms of national polity. The collapse of the local government system has meant that fewer jobs are available for disgruntled youths in Karachi and Hyderabad, and the MQM – as a party of the urban middle and lower middle classes of these cities – stands to lose the most in Sindh.
When the MQM decided that its ministers would quit the cabinet, President Zardari camped in his Karachi home for a fortnight, promising the MQM redress. However, the MQM chose to go ahead with its own script. Having deliberated various options with other forces of note, on 2 January the party decided to quit the federal government altogether. The stated premise was the rise in prices of petroleum products. The MQM had also sought portfolios of greater significance, as well as the removal of the Sindh home minister. (As Himal goes to press, discussions have only yielded promises for greater accommodation of MQM supporters in government service.) Four days later, on 6 January, Prime Minister Gillani retracted the hike in petroleum prices. The following day he visited the MQM headquarters and managed to woo the party back by announcing that legislation on the controversial Reformed General Sales Tax (RGST) would not be tabled before consensus on the issue.
In essence, then, everything was back to the status quo – and no party emerged a loser. In fact, choosing to direct their guns at each other meant that all stakeholders in the government emerged with some credit. The MQM’s withdrawal meant that all parties could show their hand of strength at the national and provincial levels, creating the perception that can galvanise voters and party activists. The PPP proved that the government was not being dislodged anytime soon; the PML-N and the MQM established their dislike of each other while simultaneously claiming credit for the government withdrawing the price hike; the JUI-F managed to up the ante on the blasphemy laws; and the ANP managed to ride on a sympathy wave. Pakistani politicians are, after all, perpetual ‘frenemies’, never enemies.
Ahmed Yusuf is deputy city editor at Pakistan Today, in Karachi.