When the freshly minted – and recently released from Rangers custody - Muttahida Qaumi Movement – Pakistan (MQM) under Farooq Sattar, announced that it was breaking away from its talismanic leader Altaf Hussain, the act was appraised by many to be unthinkable. Those who have experienced the hypnotic hold the party chief held over the party’s rank and file dismissed the announcement as a ruse; surely no one in Karachi would dare to sideline Altaf Hussain, the MQM leaders will openly denounce him, but will covertly follow directions from London.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case. The impassionate press conference by Farooq Sattar and company, and the following Rangers blitz had done enough to calm the choppy waters of Karachi. The MQM could have left it at that note, and continued business as usual – albeit with a few enforced changes. Yet the party has gone ahead and further emphasised its break from London, a move that suggests that the party might be seriously considering a divorce from the leader as a viable option.

A recent meeting of the MQM-Pakistan coordination committee decided to remove the name of Altaf Hussain from the party constitution and flag and empower its senior deputy conveners to lead the party in the absence of convener Nadeem Nusrat. It also presented a resolution in the National Assembly, denouncing the leader but stopping short of complete disassociation.

These are strong symbolic actions; perhaps more powerful than any press conference the MQM could have held.  They have been definitely perceived to be so by Altaf Hussain’s camp, as three London-based leaders — Wasay Jalil, Mustafa Azizabadi and Qasim Ali Raza – fired a scathing volley on Farooq Sattar and “leaders trying to gain control of the party”. In their words: “No MQM without Altaf Hussain”.

The battle for the heart and soul of the MQM – and by extension, Karachi – is truly on. A rebranded MQM-Pakistan on one side, and Altaf Hussain loyalists on the other, with Mustafa Kamal’s Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP) waiting in the wings to snap up stragglers. Which side the party workers and the denizens of Karachi will pick – whose choice is complicated by their own loyalties and local leaders – is anyone’s guess.

What is certain, however, is the mighty MQM stands at a crossroads. The coming months will present a clearer picture of where the party, and the city it commands, is headed.