Aspiring to take the muhajir vote from across Karachi, Syed Mustafa Kamal and his Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) appear to have overreached. Their chances look slim, notwithstanding reversals for Altaf Hussain and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).
Kamal is widely unpopular among Altaf loyalists because of his ‘betrayal’ and alleged dealing with the army to split MQM. This sense of betrayal is markedly acute after years of a security operation against MQM have decimated Altaf’s hold on the city and crushed his party’s ability to hold protests even over its missing or murdered workers. In this scenario, Kamal embodies a receptacle for people’s feelings towards the security forces. He is perceived as weak and traitorous and supported only by those who wish no good to MQM. He had egg on his face, literally, during his campaign visit to Karachi’s Orangi Town neighbourhood earlier last month. While other MQM stalwarts, such as Farooq Sattar and Amir Khan, are commonly viewed as having compromised their new leadership positions in a now-factionalised MQM to profit financially, Kamal’s wholesale perfidy is viewed as more cowardly and more treacherous.
Kamal has neither the longevity nor the iconicity of Altaf. His legacy is likely to be shorter-lived, his heyday now past, his demise impending – arguably like MQM’s – for all his strategic manoeuvring and false confidence. His personality and political failures highlight gaps in a political landscape where a nuanced stratagem for traversing mafia, militarism, democracy, ethnicity and class has yet to emerge.
Born in 1971 into an Urdu-speaking family that migrated from Bihar in India, Kamal joined the first wave of lower middle-class muhajir mobilisation. As a dedicated MQM worker, he became a telephone operator at Nine Zero, the party’s headquarters in Karachi. Following MQM’s 2002 electoral victory, he was rewarded with the post of provincial information technology minister in Sindh, a position he held between 2003 and 2005.
In 2005, he was nominated by Altaf as mayor of Karachi whereupon he initiated many transport and recreational (beautification) projects and built parks and gardens. His mayoral achievements won him international recognition. Working in harmony with his party’s policy to attract a younger, more educated and more prosperous Karachi voter than the traditional Altaf supporter, Kamal became popular as MQM’s ‘good’, soft face.
Soon after his 2013 election to the Senate from Sindh, he developed differences with Altaf, resigned as a senator and left for Dubai. Meanwhile, in March 2015, state security forces raided Nine Zero as part of the developments that spurred MQM’s dissolution. The year 2016 brought the bizarre spectacle of Altaf’s posters being removed and replaced with those of Kamal’s. In March that year, Kamal returned to Pakistan whereupon he denounced MQM and Altaf and, together with Anis Qaimkhani, another senior MQM leader, launched PSP. Further events led the MQM leadership in Karachi, fronted by Farooq Sattar, to publicly disavow Altaf and establish MQM-Pakistan.
Kamal has survived as a careful strategist since then, winning the allegiance of many legislators and office-bearers of MQM, but his actions have angered the party’s supporters. Much like Amir Khan and Afaq Ahmed during the 1992 emergence of MQM-Haqiqi, he is perceived as working from ‘within’ to destroy Altaf’s and MQM’s electoral capability. Building on the Haqiqi parallel, many muhajir constituents believe PSP has been formed to divide the muhajir votebank in Karachi and Hyderabad. Less propitiously, he is associated with rumours around the 1993 murder of MQM Chairman Azeem Ahmed Tariq, who worked to prevent the party’s factionalisation back then.
It is early to predict whether Kamal will be finished politically without the establishment’s support or if a disunited MQMP will still be able to win in muhajir areas of Karachi and Hyderabad to the detriment of his PSP —regardless of support from the establishment.
Through Qaimkhani, PSP has enticed into its fold many of those MQM workers who understand election engineering, which may help it offer tough fights to MQMP in Karachi’s muhajir constituencies — critically, in Central and Korangi districts as well as in half of district East. These fights, however, could turn into possible setbacks for PSP because of its frequent criticism of the disastrous consequences of ethnicity politics.
The author is a reader in anthropology and psychology at the University of Brighton
This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of the Herald, as a part of a series of profiles of 10 politicians who were to make a mark on this year's election. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.