Will MQM’s be able to make inroads in Punjab?

Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s (MQM) fresh bid last month to make in-roads in Punjab is not its first attempt. It had also organised meetings in many cities of Punjab in 2006 and 2007. But the difference was that PML (Q), which though was its coalition partner in the center, had made it difficult for them to enter Punjab. This time the confident PML (N) government wisely let them have their show.

Before we assess the impact of MQM’s entry in Punjab politics, if any, and Punjabis entry in MQM, let’s take a look at the three public meetings. The MQM is calling its simultaneous conventions in Multan, Lahore and Rawalpindi a roaring success. My feedback from senior journalists of these three cities was mixed. In Multan the participants were brought in from most of the Siraiki belt cities by cars and wagons. People from the families that migrated from Haryana and Hasar in India to Multan and Bahawalpur region were also attracted to the MQM Multan meeting. Senior Multan journalist Qamar Sattar observed that “there were about 5000 people in the convention, which is a success when no regional party attracts that many people to their public meetings in Multan, not even the parties that demand a Siraiki province.”

Raja Aurangzeb’s view from Lahore was that the meeting was not successful as the attendance was low although the people were brought in from Faisalabad, Gujrat and Gujranwala. He feels that MQM has to go a long way to improve on its image in Lahore for building any significant position. He said no known political workers were seen at the meeting.

Mushtaq Minhas from Islamabad said that given the present situation a public meeting of about 5000 people in Islamabad was a good show. He said that MQM worked hard for this convention led by its organiser Zahid Malik who also works for Urdu daily ‘Amn’. Contrary to the claim of some PML (N) leaders that most of the people were carted from Karachi, Mushtaq said he saw many local middle class people. In spite of MQM’s negative image in Punjab as a party which uses strong arms tactics in Karachi and has been tough with the Punjabis in the city, its bid to enter Punjab the bastion of power looks impressive.

MQM has entered in Punjab with slogans that it is a party of middle and lower middle classes; it is not a party where leadership is kept within the family; and it is anti-feudal. In urban and rural Central Punjab MQM slogan of anti-feudalism is not going to work because most of the land holdings are small. The urban middle and business class is with PML (N). PPP support in Punjab is mostly in urban and rural poor. Some big religious-feudal families of Southern Punjab are also with it because they need the votes of the rural poor to win the election. In Northern Punjab it may be able to attract some support among the civilian salaried people. In other areas, which traditionally provides manpower for the military, MQM entry would be very difficult because of its image and anti-war policies.

Though MQM has been trying to grow into a national party since 1997 when it changed its name from ‘Mohajir’ to ‘Muttahida’ (united), it has not been able to prove that it is capable of looking beyond the interest of core support i.e. Mohajirs of Sindh. The party came into existence during General Ziaul Haq’s regime as the representative of Mohajir interest and had bloody conflicts first with the ever-growing Pakhtuns immigrants. Then they fought with Sindhis over government jobs. Finally, they had a conflict with the Punjabis, once it was realised that they have to co-exist with the Sindhis in the province. Brigadier A. R. Siddiqui in his book “Partition and the Making of the Mohajir Mindset” has aptly observed: “The MQM’s sentimental journey from ‘mohajir’ to ‘muttahida’ not only failed to establish its credentials as a national party but also drove a wedge into the monolithic structure of the organisation.” Though it has been sharing power in Sindh for over a decade, even today it has uneasy relations with its coalition partners, PPP which represents Sindhis and the Pakhtun ANP leaders.

Can MQM turn this failure into success? To be successful they have to attract the Punjabis and not just the Urdu speaking people of the province. According to available data 4.5% population of the Punjab had reported in the last census that the language used in their homes was Urdu. If the Punjabis join MQM it would not only be good for the country but would have a positive influence on the party itself.

At present although MQM speaks against feudalism, the leadership mindset is feudal. Nobody can dare to disagree with the party supreme leader Altaf Hussain. Much of the party has been built on the personality cult of the leader. Infusion of other ethnic groups in MQM would democratise the internal structure. And if it is allowed to happen, MQM would grow into a major urban middle class party of the country. The edge it has over other mass parties is that it is the most organised political party of the country. Many middle class Karachiites agree with the secular politics of MQM, but prefer to stay away from it because of its image and stifling discipline. It can be said in its defense that PPP and PML (N) are also built around Bhutto’s and Sharif’s personality. But the difference is that there is still room to argue and disagree with the leaders in these parties. And nobody appreciates it when their leadership acts arbitrarily. They have also more capacity to take the criticism from within and from the media. MQM has the potential but it would have to open up. Otherwise Brig. Siddiqui’s observation that “typically construct of the Mohajir persona, Altaf Hussain’s image” would fail to stir and capture the fancy of the non-mohajir Sindhis and others” would stand true. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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