The Altaf cure…surprisingly effective


The Leader is a sick man and his nerves are giving way. No other interpretation can be put on his rant of August 22 when he just couldn’t control himself or his tongue and heaped abuse on Pakistan and the DG Rangers, Maj Gen Bilal Akbar. He seems to hate both in equal measure. The general should be flattered.

The rant was the sound of nerves snapping, of frustration boiling over into helpless and impotent anger. London was not just a comfortable but an invigorating haven when the Leader would scowl and across the seas Karachi would explode in violence. And ruling politicians far from bridling at this remote-controlled manipulation would scramble to appease Altaf Hussain’s anger.

And media houses, the lions of free speech, taking discretion as the better part of valour, would say not a word, not daring even to take the MQM’s name in an adverse context. Those were the glory days for the leader when not just his word but his every gesture was the law for Pakistan’s largest city, its commercial and industrial capital, and its only seaport.

When he spoke, or rather ranted, which was often, all the great organs of the fourth estate, the self-same lions of free speech, would put everything on hold, suspend all other programming and switch to carrying his rambling speeches live, often for hours on end. At times he would play the buffoon and clown, sometimes even singing…and the organs of free speech would show it all because the penalty of not doing so was severe.

The MQM, its armed wing and sector commanders – the dreaded gauleiters who kept control over the city – knew how to exact retribution. No military regime exercised such control over Karachi. Indeed, it was more like a reign of terror.

And politicians and governments after every outrage committed responded with more kowtowing and more submission to this blackmail. There were two no-go areas in the grand Fortress of the Islamic Republic: Fata where the holy warriors of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan held sway and where no greater myth existed than the notion of Pakistani sovereignty; and Karachi where the MQM held sway.

The amirs of the TTP were at least physically present in their holy emirate. The MQM amir, its absolute Hitler, held his court in London, running his distant fiefdom from there. Just as corporate wealth in the age of globalisation knew no frontiers, the MQM had made frontiers irrelevant.

That was then. Everything began to change, as much in Fata as in Karachi, after Gen Raheel Sharif took over as army chief. A full-fledged operation, which the army was scared of launching previously, was begun in Fata and the Rangers were empowered to bring peace and a measure of sanity to Karachi.

Terrorism has not been eliminated but its roots have been shaken. Terrorist incidents can still occur in Karachi but terrorism and violence are not what they were before. Extortion in the MQM’s heyday had become one of Karachi’s leading enterprises. It may not have ended completely but Karachi’s atmosphere, compared to two years ago, has vastly improved, its citizens breathing easier. And they, and the nation at large, are finally rid of that burden of having to listen perforce to the leader’s menacing speeches…this after a court order stopped TV channels from airing them.

This is the treatment, the sum of it, which is telling so heavily on the caudillo’s nerves. The sources of extortion have dried up; target killers have been nabbed or are on the run; and Altaf Hussain has been deprived of his fix, the drug to which he was addicted, the speeches which held not just Karachi but the nation’s airwaves hostage. What’s the fun of running your distant empire when it is under attack, your acolytes on the run, and TV channels, discovering hitherto untapped reserves of courage thanks to the Rangers’ operation, finally defying you and blanking your voice out?

The greatest love affair of the megalomaniac is with himself and when he can’t hear the sound of his own voice, and the sound of the adulation of the masses, it is worse than death.

What would Nawaz Sharif be without his bawarchis, his many chefs? He wouldn’t know what to do with himself. That would be his greatest deprivation. What would Nisar Ali Khan be without his permanent occupancy of Punjab House in Islamabad and his weekly press conferences which make him look busy? What is the tippler without his evening ritual, the splash of amber liquid in a well-chosen glass? What is Altaf Hussain without his speeches?

The Ranger crackdown on the MQM has delivered physical blows. The high court order taking care of his speeches has done something more subtle…blocked his spiritual reserves, and he can’t take it. He meant it when he said, addressing his diehard supporters on that fateful afternoon of August 22, that if the channels are not showing Bhai’s face and not airing his speeches why haven’t they been shut down?

That was it, the leader baring his soul and exposing himself and it all came out: the hatred for Pakistan, the country which from the taxi stands of Chicago had raised him to the dizzying heights of absolute power but which now, having had enough of him, was denying him his life’s sustenance; the pent-up vitriol against the Rangers and the army; and that final, pathetic plea…smash those TV channels which were denying him his due. This was no conspiracy, RAW or anything else. This was no calculation. This was spur-of-the-moment, spontaneous and therefore honest: the truth coming out.

This was Altaf Hussain’s Army Public School attack, an attack not on anything else but himself. Just as the APS attack finished the appeasement of terrorism to which our politicians, nearly of them, were given, this attack also puts paid to the notion of appeasing Altaf Hussain. This puts him beyond the pale, finally beyond acceptance and recognition. No politician, not even a Rehman Malik, will now try the game of appeasement.

But a distinction must be drawn. Altaf Hussain may have founded the MQM but the MQM today is a reality and presence far bigger than him. Despite its tribulations it remains the biggest party of Karachi, representing the aspirations and needs of millions of people. The temptation to view the MQM as an extension of Altaf Hussain should thus be avoided.

It’s a healthy sign, showing the maturity of our security establishment, that even after Altaf Hussain’s historic rant no move was made to block Waseem Akhtar’s election as mayor of Karachi. He has won this office in a fair fight and should be respected for it and allowed to work freely. This is natural evolution, the MQM trying to find its feet itself.

Ishrat-ul-Ibad was once his master’s trusted voice. Now he is Sindh’s longest-serving governor, seemingly indispensable for every dispensation in Sindh. Waseem Akhtar, Farooq Sattar et al have been Altaf Hussain’s creatures. But the way things are going they are bound to emerge from his shadow. And the grip of the London organisation is bound to loosen. Such is life.

So need to get agitated. Altaf Hussain has done himself a disservice. He has done Pakistan a service by hastening his own slide towards irrelevance. Provided the TV ban remains, he can never be the same man again.