MQM in Punjab: Free food, stale agenda

Published: April 11, 2011
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Supporters gather in Lahore at the MQM rally. PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESS

The big MQM jalsa in Lahore was touted as the game changer for the party and the people of Punjab. Roads in the city were lined with billboards as reminders of the rally that would kickstart the “revolution”.

The promise was that MQM chief Altaf Hussain’s words would inspire people to stand up against an oppressive two-party political system. But now that the jalsa is over and the reviews are in, it seems that nothing has changed.

The only effect of the jalsa on the people of Lahore was that they had to take alternative routes to their destinations as multiple roads were blocked off.

Trying and failing in Lahore

MQM has been doing its best to transform into a national party for years. The first step was the change of name from Muhajir to Muttahida in an effort to broaden the party’s political base.

Next, the party worked on increasing its influence to areas outside of Karachi.

Most recently, the MQM has done everything it can to somehow break into the political arena in Punjab. Given that the Punjab province has the largest population, it’s a logical step for any political party looking for national recognition to have a presence in the province.

For the last four to five years, MQM has made a concentrated effort to get a foothold in the province by initially opening up offices in Lahore.

Their offices were attacked and burned to the ground multiple times before the party finally wrapped up and moved back to Karachi.

MQM’s obsession with breaking into Punjab is a genuine political move but there are factors that MQM fails to realise and understand.

These factors and circumstances will never allow MQM to get a footing in the province:

  • Despite its evolution, the MQM continues to be perceived as a party based largely on ethnicity. This perception is based on the party’s past and the fact that it has managed to “control” the city of Karachi for decades.
  • The average Punjabi associates MQM with the mob culture of Karachi: target killings, violence and muggings. With suc a perception, no Punjabi wants this to happen in their province.
  • Similarly, MQM’s understanding of Punjab is also stereotypical. They still talk about jageerdars, an oppressive feudal system, lack of rights etcetera. After all these years, this perception of Punjab and its political culture is offensive for any Punjabi.
  • The fact is that Punjab’s politics are based on a baradari and patronage system. It has been this way for years and was the same even before partition. This is something that the MQM completely fails to understand as they do not have to face this constraint in their electoral strongholds.

A poorly attended rally

When the jalsa was announced many people in Punjab actually decided to hear the MQM out – just to see if they had something new to offer.

After much fuss it was decided that the rally would be held at the Punjab Stadium. If the Punjab government had let them have this rally at the Gaddafi Stadium, it would have looked rather sad considering the tiny number of people who actually attended.

The fact that people were shipped from Karachi to Lahore to attend the rally just added to the negative perception of MQM in Punjab.

Faulty agenda

The rally was poorly organised and the speeches lacked charisma; it seemed like the MQM was shoving its agenda and ideology down the throat of their target audience. In Karachi, MQM events are under the complete control and authority of MQM workers and participants but the event in Lahore was the exact opposite.

What MQM perhaps does not realise is that this whole “London se aya mera phone” routine doesn’t work in Punjab. It did more harm than good.

Rather than trying to penetrate Punjab, MQM should focus on broadening its influence in Sindh, because over the last 20 years, they have not managed to win outside of Karachi and Hyderabad with the exception of a couple of seats.

They need to also learn to take a stance on issues, like the time they said they would go into the opposition. It would be nice of them to actually follow up on that instead of making empty threats. This actually reinforces the general perception that the MQM is only interested in staying in power.

The whole corruption card has already been played by Imran Khan; the negotiation and honesty card is being played by PML-Q and PPP is playing the friendly opposition game.

So, if they have some new ideas which are not based on Punjabi movies from the 90s, they can try them out in Punjab. But it is highly unlikely that will work.

Paying people to show up on a Sunday in a tiny stadium with the added incentive of free food in return for sitting and listening to outdated commentary on the political system, is not exactly what you call ‘massive show of support’.

Adnan.rasool

Adnan Khalid Rasool

Currently the Deputy Executive Director Center for Enterprise, Trade and Development, Adnan is also a political analyst working mainly on electoral politics and political campaign management. He tweets at @adnanrasool

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.