It is easy for Altaf Hussain to raise the spectre of feudal domination because, in Sindh, the divide between feudal and non-feudal more or less synchronises with the Sindhi and Urdu-speaking divide
The worst floods in the country’s history have hit the people of Pakistan hard but the political leaders are engaged in a self-destructive war of words. The latest round of confrontation was initiated by the chief of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Altaf Hussain, on August 22 by making a highly controversial statement that negated the letter and spirit of the constitution and reflected his disrespect for the democratic institutions and processes.
All political parties and civil society groups condemned this statement. The print and electronic media took exception to this statement in varying degrees. Senior MQM leaders not only defended Altaf Hussain’s statement but also resorted to name-calling other political parties and leaders that questioned his statement. The disposition of the senior MQM leaders might have satisfied the MQM’s key organisational principle, i.e. total loyalty to the party chief, but it adversely affected the MQM’s reputation outside its strongholds in urban Sindh and generated unnecessary bitterness in politics at a time when harmony and cooperation were needed for addressing the humanitarian disaster caused by the floods.
Altaf Hussain’s contentious statement reads: “The MQM will openly support the patriotic generals if they take any martial law-type action against corrupt politicians and feudal lords.” He also said, “If these generals can topple political and democratic governments they can also take steps to weed out corrupt politicians and feudal lords.” Defending these statements, Farooq Sattar, a senior MQM leader, said that “the country [was] in the ICU (intensive care unit) and needs surgery.”
Altaf Hussain’s statement is objectionable for three major reasons. First, there is no provision in the constitution that allows the military to take ‘martial law-type’ action to purge what he calls corrupt politicians and feudal lords.
Second, the MQM is part of the coalition government at the federal level and in the province of Sindh. It should have used its influence with the ruling partners to deal with these issues. The MQM could have moved a resolution in both houses of parliament and in the Sindh Assembly in support of its demand. Alternatively, the MQM could have moved a bill in the National Assembly for making laws to strip the feudal class of their land. Instead, it has bypassed parliament and its coalition partners and made a direct appeal to the military for an intervention in the political domain. This weakens constitutionalism and democracy.
Third, why should Altaf Hussain think that he could use the military to fulfil his party agenda? The military in Pakistan does not play any political party’s game. It has its own view of politics and on politics. Whenever it assumed power it pursued its own agenda. It often tried to win over some political support to cope with the legitimacy crisis of the military regime or for civilianisation of military rule. General Pervez Musharraf used both methods and the MQM joined him in the 2002 civilianisation of his military rule.
An objective analysis of the present National Assembly will show that the big landed aristocracy does not dominate it. Neither do they dominate all political parties. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q), Awami National Party (ANP) and the MQM are not controlled by feudal elements. Non-feudal elements have a significant strength in the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
It is easy for Altaf Hussain to raise the spectre of feudal domination because, in Sindh, the divide between feudal and non-feudal more or less synchronises with the Sindhi and Urdu-speaking divide. As almost all the feudal aristocracy is Sindhi-speaking, Altaf Hussain finds it convenient to raise this issue and build pressure on his political adversaries. There is no such linguistic divide in Punjab or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
Altaf Hussain has also cautioned his political adversaries, including the PPP, who are perceived by the MQM as challenging its monopoly on Karachi politics. The ANP is more active in Karachi now than was the case three years ago. The Sunni Tehrik is also making inroads into Karachi. Further, militant/sectarian groups are beyond the control of the MQM. The same can be said about various gangs that engage in land grabbing and other criminal activities. Consequently, the MQM finds it hard to sustain its capacity to control reward and punishment in Karachi. The MQM’s anger is building not only against the ANP but also against the PPP. The latter is viewed as being unhelpful. The perception is that the PPP may either be encouraging some of these elements or it may be trying to strengthen itself.
In this fight for domination in Karachi, Altaf Hussain’s statement is a subtle message to the political rivals, including the PPP, that the MQM could invoke the military as its trump card.
Another possible explanation is that Altaf Hussain must have come to believe the latest speculative reports that the PPP federal government is going to be set aside soon in view of the mismanagement of the floods, either by the Supreme Court or under military pressure or both. If President Asif Ali Zardari and the PPP government are on the way out (far from settled), then the MQM may be thinking of pre-positioning itself for the post-PPP era.
The MQM leaders are wrong to assume that if the military can fight terrorism and manage rescue and relief work for the flood-affected people, it can also weed out feudal and corrupt politicians. These are two different domains requiring different strategies. For fighting terrorism or relief work the military relies on its organisational skills, discipline and technical know-how. However, the military cannot fulfil the MQM wish list without violating the constitution and parliament.
The experience of four military governments in Pakistan shows that the military cannot implement far reaching socio-economic changes and address the problem of fragility of political institutions. Military rule causes the atrophy of civilian institutions and processes and the military ends up spending more energy in sustaining its rule rather than changing the socio-economic and political status quo.
The military has restored its image by staying on the sidelines and letting the political process unfold. Its counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency work has won respect within and outside Pakistan. The flood relief work is the latest example of its positive role. These achievements will be neutralised if the military steps directly into politics on the assumption that some political leaders would support its expanded role. The top brass should not entertain political ambitions because it will trap the military in a no-win situation.
Dr Hasan-Askari Rizvi is a political and defence analyst