Going with plausible deniability?


MQM chief Altaf Hussain addressed his supporters for over three hours through a press conference broadcast live by almost all news channels of the land. The press conference was followed by several analytical talk shows; one of my personal favourites, Bolta Pakistan, was soon to run into a blockade erected by an executive. Senior journalist Nusrat Javeed quit in disgust over what he felt was the channel’s meek surrender to alleged threats from the MQM.
This subsequently triggered a reaction on Twitter, with many journalists – including myself – leaping to the defence of our stalwart. The MQM, through Haider Abbas Rizvi on Geo and Faisal Subzwari on Twitter, vehemently denied any involvement in the matter. But soon after, as Dr Zulfiqar Mirza was urged to provide his now-customary two incendiary bits on the Altaf speech by another television channel, news of the said channel having been taken off air – allegedly at the behest of the MQM – started doing the rounds.
In both cases, it was entirely plausible that the MQM was not the party at fault or that it had any connection to either matter. Many refused to believe that the MQM had changed, or even that it was possible for the party to change. But while Nusrat Saheb will tell us the precise details of all that happened that night, if he chooses to participate in his show on Monday night, the owners of the said channel will have recourse to plausible deniability. That a senior executive pulled the plug on the show on his own, after “a call”, or even without the owners’ permission but as a pre-emptive measure, is somewhat believable even if it might not be true.
And herein lies the MQM’s biggest challenge and dilemma: can it change its public perception from being a party that adheres to violence as a political strategy to one that relies on debate and shrewd moves to counter its opposition. How plausible can the doctrine of plausible deniability be when it comes to the MQM? And is the country, especially the intelligentsia in Punjab, willing to give the MQM a chance?
The MQM before its facelift and the one after is distinguished through a major qualitative change: many had adopted the term ‘Urdu-speaking’ rather than Mohajir, so as to differentiate themselves from the MQM while the party was under the weather. But this seems to have changed after Mustafa Kamal – the party’s primary constituencies lie not on posh areas of the city, but in middle-class and lower middle-class localities that were previously under-developed. Work carried out in these areas, political and otherwise, have not only had a lasting impact over those who vote for the MQM but also reinforced the Mohajirness of the MQM.
It is also a measure of how disciplined the MQM is in its rank and file as well as that a party close to being decimated in the late 1990s managed to regroup and emerge as Pakistan’s third or fourth largest political force (depending on which criteria one uses). And it is because of this discipline, coupled with the monopoly over coercive power that one finds it almost ludicrous that violence or extortion is undertaken in the name of the MQM without the party leaders’ knowledge. A party with a military-style discipline has to act on some orders, it does not act on someone’s random whims. Shifting blame on an underling or arguing ignorance might be the conventional street wisdom in Karachi, but in the game of politics, it can be devastating.
MQM chief Altaf Hussain’s musing for over three hours did not draw nationwide acclaim, nor was it supposed to. Some deemed his speech to contain nothing substantial; the MQM rank and file understood it as a response to the show put on by Dr Zulfiqar Mirza and the jostling of the ANP to become an alternative to the MQM – all of which was delivered very much in Karachi street slang and mannerisms. Hussain has built his support through speeches and mobilisation made in the same language for over 20 years, the MQM isn’t going anywhere in the near future.
But what the MQM should be concerned about is how it is viewed elsewhere: Hussain’s reply to a Sindhi journalist regarding whether the Urdu-speaking can ever be accepted as bonafide Sindhis was telling; Zulfiqar Mirza may be getting the sympathies of the Sindhi nationalists but on ground, the MQM’s relief work in flood-hit areas both last year and now deserve more respect and recognition. At a time when the provincial government has been going around with a begging bowl, it is the MQM willing to provide food and shelter to those ravaged by floods. These orders were also given by someone, a wide scale drive for relief and rehabilitation does not occur on its own.
Regardless of who turns up for a press conference in Nine Zero, plausible deniability as a strategy can only work for a limited time and scale. If Ajmal Pahari, an MQM worker according to Mustafa Kamal, is indeed convicted of horrendous crimes, the MQM needs to take action against all those who ordered the killings and helped Pahari carry out his tasks. It’s not simply about what the PPP or the ANP are doing to the MQM, but also of how the MQM deals with its political culture. This is the war of perception that the MQM needs to wage if it is to become a nationwide party; after all, perceptions built on the lasting foundations of history and time carry much credence.

The writer is Deputy City Editor, Pakistan Today, Karachi. In Twitterverse, he goes by @ASYusuf.


  1. The thing I am unable to understand is that I criticized MQM two times, once in an interview with THE NEWS titled 'Weaponless NSF goes Underground' and another in on Aligarh Institute but they never threatened me or harassed me.
    Truth is though I am aware of the MQM's military might but not MQM but other factors are responsible for the situation of Karachi. And you AY knows very well.

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