The MQM’s trump cards


It was not a major surprise that the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) decided, once again, to withdraw from partnership with the PPP at the federal level and in the province of Sindh. Subsequently, the MQM decided to work closely with the PML(N), hitherto an adversary, for effective opposition to the PPP. This, for all practical purposes means the parliament because the PML(N) has no members in the Sindh Provincial Assembly.

The MQM has developed a typical political style since 1988 when the first elected government of Benazir Bhutto was installed. In any coalitional arrangement, the MQM leaders do not want the senior partner to assume that the MQM support is assured all the time. They keep the partners guessing about their next political move.

The MQM uses several methods to keep the partners and allies on their toes. These include public criticism or temporary non-cooperation while staying in the coalition, the threat of withdrawal or actual withdrawal from coalitional arrangements and re-negotiation of terms of partnership. Once the MQM top leadership has decided to quit a coalition or switch sides, they put all the blame on the erstwhile partner and defend their decision to quit as enthusiastically as they had defended the earlier decision to join that partnership. On both occasions, they claim that the decision was taken in the best interests of the people and the nation.

What makes the MQM’s politics work is the military-like discipline and the staunch commitment of its parliamentarians and activists to the top leadership. The decisions are made by the top leadership with a strong input by the supreme leader that are fully complied with by all parliamentarians and activists. The latter project and defend the party decision and there is no room for giving any alternative discourse, not to speak of dissent. The changes in the political priorities and discourse are made by the top leadership or the supreme leader or both.

The MQM has cultivated a strong ethno-linguistic political consciousness in urban Sindh, especially in Karachi, because of Sindh’s peculiar ethnic-linguistic divide. The MQM’s success is also linked to its extraordinary feature of being a fully service and task- oriented organisation that makes sure that the serious problems of the common people are fully taken care of. It uses its mobilisational capacity and organisational skills to undertake welfare work and makes sure that the state machinery extends some facilities to the people. This is a major asset in Karachi where civic facilities and routine services are not always available. In return for services, the MQM expects full loyalty from the members and voters. The party machine makes sure that the link between the party and the members and voters is strong who are expected to respond positively to the party calls for political activism and fund-raising.

The solid electoral base in Karachi, Hyderabad and other cities and a strong hierarchical structure accompanied with discipline are major assets for the MQM. It has secure seats in the Sindh Assembly and the two houses of parliament from these areas. The parliamentarians operate as a cohesive group, giving enough clout to the leadership for political bargaining. The contents of their speeches and statements inside and outside the parliament and the Sindh Assembly change whenever the top leadership gives them a new political agenda.

What makes the MQM strong in urban Sindh is an impediment to its effort to establish itself in other provinces, especially in Punjab. Despite the MQM’s repeated efforts to project itself as a party of the middle and lower classes, it has not been able to liberate itself from its “home ground” of urban Sindh and ethno-linguistic identity of Urdu-speaking people. If it dilutes its territorial and ethnic-linguistic connections, its position will weaken in Sindh without a guarantee of overcoming these electoral losses from other provinces. In fact, the MQM is expected to face new challenge in the next general elections from resurging hardline Islamic groups like the Sunni Ittehad and the Jamaat-e-Islami, although the indications are that it will maintain its primacy in urban Sindh.

The MQM effort to establish itself in Punjab is viewed by the politically active circles in Punjab as an attempt to improve its bargaining power to protect its primary assets in urban Sindh. Even if it establishes itself in the Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, it will never have a standing similar to that of urban Sindh. Therefore, its urban Sindh bias is expected to dominate its politics.

Further, the ethnic and linguistic situation in Punjab is very different from that of Sindh. There is hardly any exclusive Urdu and exclusive Punjabi-speaking elite in the Punjab. The elite in Punjab are bilingual who speak both languages interchangeably. Those coming from the Seraiki area, also speak Seraiki in addition to Urdu and Punjabi. Therefore the single language urban Sindh consciousness cannot be replicated here. If we go back in history, the province of Punjab, especially Lahore, has contributed significantly to the development of Urdu.

The PPP and the Pakistan Muslim League “N” and “Q” represent the political mainstream in the Punjab and these parties are linked with socio-economic dynamics of the province and its baradari system. These two parties will continue to dominate Punjab’s electoral politics.

The MQM has to go a long way to become a credible political force in Punjab. It held successful public meetings in Lahore and some other cities but these were Karachi managed and attended meetings with limited local participation. Its cadre and public support is even weaker than Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, the Jamaat-e-Islami and other smaller parties.

The current arrangement with the PML(N) has a negative basis, that is, opposition to the PPP. It will be a mistake on the part of the MQM if it thinks that the PML(N) will facilitate its entry into Punjab.

The violent situation in Karachi demands that all Sindh-based political parties work together to restore peace and order. The MQM also needs to purse positive interaction with the PPP if it has reservations on the recent changes in local government and district administration. It will not get any support from the PMLN on this issue because the latter has changed the local administration system in the Punjab. Other provinces have also made similar changes. If the MQM does not want to change the system in Sindh, it will have to negotiate with the PPP. Any other approach will cause political bitterness and conflict in Karachi.


The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.



  1. MQM, to me is nothing but a usurper with a very chauvinistic political agenda. It, as Professor Askari mentions, has a narrow support-base which is not difficult to understand if one follows the development in colonial India and rise of narrowly-based Muslim nationalism in around core Urdu-speaking areas of United Province. It was difficult for them to live with Hindu majority and it is difficult for them to live with Punjabi majority.
    Pakistan needs to know and understand that it has paid a very heavy toll for the stubbornness of Urdu speaking minority going all the way back to language riots in East Bengal in 1951.
    Professor Askari mentions its organization and discipline along military lines. I agree with him and would add a foot-note that is more like a religious-cult where Pir Sahib of London Sharif runs the show sometimes calling names to followers.

  2. MQM to me is a symbol of hope. Despite all the criticism levelled against the MQM, the fact remains that it is the only political party in the country that has fulfilled its promises to the electorate as Mr Askari himself acknowledges. The MQM is also the most disciplined party. It is incorrect to say that dissent is not tolerated.

    It is unfortunate that the party has not been able to gain grounds in other parts of the country. But the fault does not lie with the MQM. It has done it best to increase its presence through out Pakistan. But the problem is that the Urud-speaking people are never accepted as the true citizens of Pakistan. It is because of this narrow mindedness that the MQM has not been able to widen its political base in the country.

    I have best wishes for the MQM.

  3. The author of the article has mentioned qualities of the members of MQM for being staunchly loyal to the top leadership. The top leadership means supremo Altaf Hussain. The allegiance of the members of Rabita Committe of the MQM with the supremo Altaf reminisces Hitler's grip on his goebbels. So, frankly this quality of MQM disciples does not impress me. There is no place for fascits in the society.

    Ever since inception of MQM Sindh has not witnessed peace. MQM thrives on politics of violence. Anis Qaimkahni who was very passionate the other night hurling threats that MQM could do something which no one could imagine. Stop this load of rubbish Mr Qaimkhani. You may have 12000 armed thugs but the times have changed and you are right it is 2011. Just watch your back.

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