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The MQM made its debut in Punjab politics last Sunday by holding a public meeting in Lahore. An estimated eight to ten thousand people attended, which is pretty good for a fresh entrant on the scene - the party though has been laying the groundwork for its activities for quite sometime.

Its detractors say it was a flop show, and that a majority of those present were brought in from Karachi and others from some small Punjab towns, and that they were paid to come to fill the space in Qadhafi Stadium's football ground. To be fair to the MQM, all parties resort to such mobilisation methods for a big ticket event like the present one. They usually provide transportation and food to their own workers and supporters to take them to the venue and stage a show of strength. If the attendees from Punjab in this event came of their own volition, it was not a bad show at all.

Still questions persist. Did they come because they were inspired, at some level, by the party and its programme? Or barring the committed party activists from Karachi, others came simply to avail the opportunity to take a paid trip to the provincial capital? These questions are a matter of curiosity because the MQM has a certain image in the province. And the image is that of a narrow-minded, ethnic, anti-Punjabi party.

Critics also blame it for the appearance of gunnysack bound bodies of Punjabis - a frequent occurrence during the decade of the 90s - on the streets of Karachi. People in the relatively peaceful Punjab province also associate the MQM with relentless violence, targeted killings, intimidation and extortion in Karachi where it is a big player. In fact, it almost completely controls the city.

A few years ago, the party reinvented itself replacing 'Mohajir (migrant)' in its name with 'Muttahida (united) Qaumi Movement. That though did not bring about any change in its orientation for the simple reason mixing of ethnicity with power politics paid a lot more than playing regular party politics. Punjabi-bashing continued. Whenever an opportunity presented itself, the party men never let it pass.

Taking umbrage recently to the remarks of the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar Ali, against the MQM chief, Altaf Hussain, a senior party leader not only used foul language against the Punjab based PML-N leadership on live television but also hurled a shocking insult on Punjabis as a people. Frothing at the mouth, he observed, "Punjab key har ghar mein mujra hota hai (rough translation: entertainer girls dance in every house in Punjab)." The party later had him apologise, but the damage was done. MQM's political adversaries in the province are unlikely to let the people forget or forgive the insult or any of the real or perceived excesses of the past.

Sunday's event in Lahore marked a new beginning for the party in the politics of the country's largest population Punjab province. It is getting ready to throw challenges to the predominance of the two major parties, the PML-N and the PPP, in alliance with some prominent Punjabi politicians at the next general elections, due anytime.

Notably, PML-Q leaders, the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, not only hosted the MQM's top members in Lahore, they also lent them a helping hand, along with General Musharraf's minuscule All Pakistan Muslim League, sending delegations to the public meeting. Interestingly, of all the people, Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan, in a long running confrontation with MQM until recently, has suddenly decided to soften his stance towards it. His publicly stated vow to bring Hussain to account for his alleged involvement in various incidents of violence has been replaced by friendly telephonic conversations, and even praise on account of consistency. There clearly is a lot more to these developments than meets the eye.

The party has already demonstrated its capability to spring surprises. For example, it has won seats in the Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan assemblies. But there were linkages in those cases with Karachi politics. The candidates either had ethnic, business or residential connections with the MQM-controlled city. The present activity is to usher the MQM in a completely new territory. Nonetheless, different players positioning themselves to form new alliances are willing to create a space for its role in the province.

Small wonder then that Altaf Hussain's London to Lahore telephonic address sounded like an election speech. Describing his party's advent in the Punjab capital as historic, he went on to aver "let the people of Punjab bring us to power and we will meet their expectations. If we fail to deliver we will leave the government." He then went on to offer a long list of promises his party would deliver upon assuming power: compulsory and free education up to matriculation; uniform syllabus for all types of schools; ban on child labour; equal rights for minorities; greater employment opportunities; recovery of ill-gotten money to be deposited in the national exchequer; a separate province for the Seriaki speaking people of southern Punjab; and, of course, an independent foreign policy.

Caught in the drama of his trade mark oratory, he also made promises neither he nor any of our current leaders can live up to, such as that both feudalism and capitalism will be rooted out, or that we will stop taking aid/loans from the IMF and the World Bank, and offer small loans to small entrepreneurs, and further that the MQM will give unemployment allowance to the jobless. There was something for everyone in the speech.

Whenever they got the opportunity to have their say, through vote, the people of this country have always displayed an impressive level of political maturity. The important thing in the present context, therefore, is not just what the MQM leader said, but his ability to address public apprehensions regarding the party's past activities and attitude towards Punjab and people from other provinces. Indeed, the present effort to reach out to Punjab is likely to bring about a welcome dilution of its ethnicity based politics. Mainstreaming though requires much more. The party needs to undertake a complete image makeover exercise. What worked in Karachi won't work in Lahore.


Copyright Business Recorder, 2011

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