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Altaf Hussain: Politics on mute

Updated 23 Aug, 2016 02:13pm
Illustration by Zaka Bhatty
Illustration by Zaka Bhatty

If you happened to visit the Herald website where votes for the Person of the Year were being polled, you might have noticed that the image of one contender was conspicuous by its absence. That contender is none other than the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader Altaf Hussain. You can write his name in print media, but publishing or broadcasting his image is forbidden, as is airing his speeches or statements.

That is quite a reversal of fortune for a man without whose mention a news bulletin would be incomplete, whose speeches – no matter how long and rambling – were telecast live and often without the otherwise sacrosanct commercial breaks. This fall from grace was, ironically enough, a result of those very speeches.

In late April last year, Hussain made a speech (nationally telecast, of course) in which he made some unsavoury comments about the Pakistan Army and its leadership. The reaction was immediate, with the director general of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) warning that the matter would be “pursued legally”. Subsequently, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) issued show-cause notices to television channels that had aired the speech, barring them from airing what it called “inflammatory content”.

His criticism on television channels was unprecedented for a leader who had previously been chided only in the most oblique and coded language.

Undeterred, Hussain made another speech in July 2015, accusing the paramilitary rangers of the “atrocities being committed against Muhajirs” and alleging that the MQM workers were being extrajudicially killed. This time though, cases were lodged against him and some of his party members in several cities of Sindh and as far afield as Gilgit-Baltistan. The complainants accused him of wanting to destabilise the country. Some called for a complete ban on the MQM itself. Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan also joined the chorus, saying that Hussain’s remarks were “intolerable” and “unacceptable”.

A month later, Hussain delivered what was arguably his most provocative speech of the year. Addressing the MQM’s annual convention in Dallas, he called upon his workers to request North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) and the United Nations (UN) forces to go to Pakistan and investigate what he called the “atrocities” being committed against the MQM members, in particular, and the Urdu-speakers, in general. He also went on to use some unflattering language against the Pakistan Army.

In late August 2015, a full bench of the Lahore High Court (LHC) banned the live broadcast of his speeches and then, on September 7, directed Pemra to ban the broadcast of any and all images and speeches by him. Even his name was no longer to be mentioned. In October, a Gilgit-Baltistan antiterrorism court sentenced Hussain to 81 years of rigorous imprisonment and also ordered the confiscation of his properties due to his “anti-state” speeches.

While many of the MQM’s political opponents welcomed the move, advocates of free speech questioned the motivation behind the ban and the sentences. It may come as a surprise to these advocates that many in the MQM leadership breathed a sigh of relief at these bans, and not just because of the possible political benefits they could reap by, once again, portraying the party and its leaders as the undeserving recipients of the state’s suppression.

“If the establishment had really wanted to take him down they should have demanded he give a speech at the top of every hour, live and unedited,” quips a somewhat disgruntled MQM leader in a private conversation. The sentiment echoes, though never spoken out loud, among a surprising number of MQM supporters — an admission that Hussain’s outbursts had become increasingly difficult to manage, let alone spin.

From his May 2013 speech warning of bloodshed and violence to his unpalatable remarks against a senior female leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Shireen Mazari, his harangues had long since crossed over from being eccentric to being plain irrational. Each time he spoke, the MQM’s spokesmen would privately gnash their teeth at the thought of having to defend his utterances on air.

When it came to the Dallas address, even these skilled spin doctors, having tried and failed at the usual techniques of distraction and deflection, opted for the “well, what he really meant to say was” strategy. No one bought it.

Also read: Satire — Diary of Altaf Hussain

But just as his incendiary speeches had been giving diminishing and negative returns for the last several years, so were the other weapons in the MQM’s political arsenal: the strike and the walk out. Strikes have become less effective, though one reason for that could be that they have long since played a part in alienating even long-time MQM supporters. The party’s resignations from parliament also only caused a temporary talk show storm, with business continuing as usual in Karachi for the most part.

Though they may defend these policies in public, many MQM leaders in private acknowledge the damage some moves by Hussain have made. These moves, they point out, are one reason why the PTI made such inroads in Karachi during the 2013 general election. This begs the question: has anyone in the MQM leadership tried to convey to Hussain that the path he is on is damaging the party itself?

“We tried, but he does not listen and gets angry with us,” says one MQM parliamentarian. “The result is that no one wants to tell him the truth about the situation on the ground and the ones with access to him tell him what he wants to hear.”

Hussain reportedly gets most of his information from those close to him at the MQM’s London office. And then, of course, there are television channels.

Each time he spoke, the MQM’s spokesmen would privately gnash their teeth at the thought of having to defend his utterances on air.

Party sources say when some local channels recently ran tickers about certain MQM parliamentarians wanting to leave the party or set up an alternative group, Hussain called them and upbraided them based on television news alone. “If he believed that, then shouldn’t he also believe it when channels run news about the party’s links with RAW [Research and Analysis Wing]?” asks an MQM parliamentarian. Did he actually put that question to Hussain? “Of course not,” comes the reply.

He claims to have learned the futility of dissent when some members of MQM in Karachi proposed to Hussain that he leave the day-to-day running of the party to them and become a titular leader. There was no need, they argued, for him to make a statement on every single issue.

The backlash wasn’t long in coming. Many of these members had to lose their party posts.

The unwillingness to let go stems from Hussain’s own history and that of his MQM. Having transformed the party, almost singlehandedly, from a student organisation to a political juggernaut that holds Karachi in a death grip – besides playing the kingmaker at the national level every now and then – Hussain cannot fathom the thought of losing control over the party’s affairs. Adding to this is the expatriate syndrome: One’s image of the homeland becomes frozen in the long years of living abroad. “[Hussain] is so used to doing things a certain way that he doesn’t realise that times have changed and the tactics of the past cannot be used anymore,” says the MQM parliamentarian.

Photo courtesy AFP
Photo courtesy AFP

Even in England, 2015 has not been a good year for Hussain. With every summons to a British police station, there is corresponding media frenzy in Pakistan. His criticism on television channels was unprecedented for a party and a leader who had previously been chided only in the most oblique and coded language. And this, too, came as a shock for the ailing Hussain. “The cases against him have added to his health problems,” says a long-standing MQM leader who also suggests that Hussain’s legal problems may be more serious than most imagine.

“[Hussain’s] legal woes have compelled the MQM leaders to think seriously [about a post-Hussain scenario]. It is not known publicly but a committee comprising some senior members at the party’s international secretariat in London has been given some power to run the party affairs in case anything happens to him,” says a senior Karachi-based reporter Zia Rehman.

Also read: Person of the Year 2015—Sabeen Mahmud

Whether a London-based committee would be acceptable to the MQM leadership at large is uncertain, but Hussain is certainly not going to appoint a single successor the party can rally around. There are no official succession plans as such, says Peshimam. “What I can say is that many senior and popular MQM faces have thought long and hard about their exit plans; should matters get out of hand post-Hussain, many have plans in place.”

Ironically, the MQM’s recent success in local government elections is only adding to the worries among the senior party leaders. “[Hussain] may well take this success as an endorsement of his modus operandi. Certainly, that is what the yes-men will tell him and that is what he will likely believe,” says an MQM member. “There will be no hope of getting him to step back or change his ways.”

Also read: Waseem Akhtar—The party man

He also suggests that Waseem Akhtar’s nomination as the next Karachi mayor is an indication that Hussain only wants to further strengthen his position within the party rather than relaxing his control. Akhtar can be seen vociferously and aggressively defending his party chief on television screen every now and then, even though the security establishment has already shown its displeasure over his nomination by booking him in a number of cases.

Such a confrontational, but extremely loyal, person as Karachi’s mayor suits Hussain best in his upcoming battles with the Sindh government, on the one hand (over the local governments’ role and powers), and with the security establishment (over law and order in Karachi), on the other. “Akhtar’s nomination shows that the MQM is in a confrontational mode,” says Rehman.

And that is as true for the party as it is for its chief.

This was originally published in the Herald's Annual 2016 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.