The rally - S Khalid Husain - Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The two things that can be said of the MQM rally in Lahore on April 10 are that it was not an “onset of a revolution,” as MQM supremo Altaf Husain has claimed, nor was it a “flop,” as Ahsan Iqbal of the PML-N has tried to present it.

The estimates of attendance at the rally have varied from “hundreds of thousands,” the number Farooq Sattar and some other leading members of the MQM have claimed, to “scores,” as the MQM’s detractors counted the participants. The PML-N’s provincial law minister has come up with a figure of seven thousand or less. Ahsan Iqbal has claimed that 70 percent of the attendees were brought from Karachi. But he did not say how the MQM brought the 70 percent when the railways can hardly move a family at one time without some of its members being stranded. The airlines can be ruled out, cost being one reason.

Former home minister of Sindh Zulfiqar Ali Mirza said the costs of holding the rally were met through the “donations” collected by the MQM. In saying this he probably also meant the costs of transferring thousands by air to Lahore and back. There are some, like the US Marines guarding the US embassy in Islamabad, who would buy this.

Zulfiqar Mirza continues to play his role of MQM-basher, which has been assigned to him by party leaders of the highest level. In the role he sometimes has to mock party colleagues, like he recently mocked Interior Minister Rehman Malik and parliamentary leader in the Sindh Assembly Pir Mazaharul Haq, He asked journalists the first is not to be taken seriously and the other “does not know what he is saying.”

It is not clear whether the mocking was real, or a tactical ploy to present Mirza as someone whose bashing of others was general, not MQM-specific. In either case, it seems the party colleagues can do little but grin and bear it, because Mirza enjoys party backing of the highest level in his MQM-bashing.

Coming back to the rally in Lahore, the only party which appeared unnerved by it was the PML-N. True, the PML-N government in Punjab did not obstruct the rally in any way. But the attitude seemed to change as the date of the rally drew closer and the feedback became alarming for the PML-N. It started becoming clear that while the rally would not sweep the city like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rally did in 1968, or like Benazir Bhutto’s rally in 1986, it would not be a “flop” either. The MQM was egged on by the PPP and the PML-Q. However, the PML-N’s reaction after the rally suggests that the party was alarmed.

The MQM supremo’s harangue about what drives Punjab politics, which is a mix of feudalism and biradari rivalries, hit the PML-N and the Sharifs where it really hurts. The Sharifs and the PML-N are products of Ziaul Haq’s fear of the PPP, and his strategy to keep the PPP out of Punjab, by revitalising the clan and biradari bonds. The strategy thereby also worsened the frictions.

The PML-Q leadership is also a product of the Zia era, just as the party itself is a product of the Musharraf period. The MQM was a Zia product, to stump the Jamaat-e-Islami in Karachi, and the stumping proved to be far better than what Kamran Akmal does behind the wickets. The MQM-Haqiqi was created in 1992, by the agencies to counter the MQM. All this did was start an unending cycle of violence, which was an excuse for a severe crackdown on the MQM, particularly by the PPP government of Benazir Bhutto, whose interior minister, Gen Nasiruddin Babar, went to town with a no-holds-barred operation in Karachi against the MQM. The agencies, with the PPP government concurring, had calculated that the two rival MQMs would destroy each other, and that would be the end of the problem. Things did not turn out that way, and Karachi paid a horrendous price.

The MQM rally – with Altaf Husain railing against the hold on politics in Punjab by powerful clans and the landed elite, and the built-in restraints on the lower and middle classes when it came to entry into politics – will undoubtedly touch responsive chords. Unfortunately for the MQM, however, it does not have much of a story to tell on what it has achieved in Karachi, or in urban Sindh, where it has dominated the political scene for more than two decades.

If, instead of building massive flyovers and underpasses, at costs that shot into space, the MQM had focused on overcoming the horrendous public transport problem in Karachi and made movement of people less wretched and less costly, it would have won millions of hearts. If it had also greatly improved water and sewerage systems, repaired and maintained the existing roads, added bus lanes, and taken more actions which were perhaps less physically visible but benefited people more, the MQM would have a more meaningful story to tell at the Lahore rally. That would have been a real difference.

The rally probably added to anti-PML-N sentiment. But in the absence of a credible alternative, whether it is the MQM itself, or the PML-Q or the PPP, there is no saying how the enhanced anti-PML-N sentiment will play out. Punjab, like the rest of the country, is up for grabs, by any leader from anywhere who can find a way into people’s hearts – through fewer words and some meaningful deeds.

The writer is former corporate executive. Email:

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