The coinciding of the dramatic return of Karachi’s ex-nazim Mustafa Kamal with the rumours of MQM supremo Altaf Hussain’s ill-health, even death, indicated that there was a massive and unsolved succession problem within the MQM. However, underneath this was the underlying problem that the MQM had not yet solved the problems of the Muhajir community, which remain the main reason for its existence.

From that point of view, there is a very strong reason for Altaf not to solve the Muhajirs’ problems, for if the Muhajirs no longer had any grievances, there would be no point in his continuing to be their leader. At the same time, the issue of succession remains vibrant. Altaf founded the APMSO, the precursor of the MQM in 1978, and thus has been leading his community for 38 years now. From a student, he has not just matured, but grown so old that the MQM must face the unthinkable: the prospect of existence without Altaf.

The trajectory which took Altaf out of Pakistan in 1992 would have ended with assassination, which was then perhaps the only way he could be removed from the scene. Now, he is of an age when he could easily die naturally. Like any monarch, as well as Pakistani party leader, he does not look kindly upon successors, even potential ones, and bestrides the MQM ‘like a Colossus’. It is instructive that the leader of the rebellion against him is an ex-nazim, while his greatest supporter and leader of the MQM parliamentary party is Farooq Sattar, the first MQM mayor of Karachi, who was elected in 1988, when the MQM burst on the national scene for the first time. Farooq Sattar was elected an MNA that year, in the beginning of the party’s thumping electoral victories there.

Altaf starts off with having no heir, unless one counts a daughter from a broken marriage. Apart from the disadvantages of sex and distance, there is the very real doubt that the MQM would submit to a dynastic succession. That is because the MQM has come to unite behind Altaf because he expresses the aspirations of the Muhajir community, and there is no sign that his daughter best fulfills them also.

It cannot be emphasized too much that Altaf leads because he represents an embodiment of something. That has the implication that he can be replaced, and the moment of replacement need not coincide with his death, by someone who better represents those aspirations.

That is why there was an attempt to replace him in 1992 by Amir Khan and Afaq Ahmad, and now by Mustafa Kamal.

At one level, the question of whether Mustafa Kamal is backed by the agencies or not, is irrelevant. Amir and Afaq were, with their first interaction with the press, which was before the Karachi operation, taking place in a military barrack in the heart of Lahore’s cantonment.

The Muhajir community has opposed the PPP, back in the 1970s, through the medium of religious parties headed by Muhajir leaders, like the Jamaat Islami and the JUP, but not the JUI, headed by a divine from the then NWFP. However, when the APMSO, founded by Altaf, talked of Muhajir rights, Muhajirs abandoned the religious parties with their nationalist discourse. However, Altaf uses religious tropes in his oratory, or the ones as religious preachers do.

Muhajirs may be a product of the Partition, but the MQM is dominated by a post-Partition generation. Muhajirs are still the only community in Pakistan who have not got a province of their own. Other communities may be unhappy in their provinces, but there is a province they could belong to in current Pakistan. Another issue Muhajirs have is that there is a Bihari content. Some Biharis have been through two Partitions: that of India in 1947, after which they migrated to East Pakistan, and then of Pakistan in 1971, upon which they migrated to Karachi. These people are among the most vigorous supporters of the MQM.

It is perhaps related that the religious parties, particularly the Jamaat Islami, were against the splitting of Pakistan, to the extent that they were behind the formation of Al-Badr and Al-Shams, which fought against the split, and which also created a nexus between the intelligence agencies and the religious parties. It is a relationship that already existed, even before the Afghan Jihad a decade later. The intelligence agencies have wanted obedient parties, not partners, something which politicians aspire to be. Indeed, the MQM itself is said by some to be a product of intelligence agencies trying to replace the Jamaat Islami, which had dominated Karachi’s politics to the extent of having its mayor, Abdus Sattar Afghani, elected in 1979 and 1983.

However, the agencies have lost control of Karachi, with their political surrogate, Imran Khan, scoring some successes, but still being very far from wresting control of the city. The MQM has another link to the military, through Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf, the first Muhajir President, and its only ruler. (Gen Ziaul Haq was also an immigrant, but from East Punjab; it is symptomatic that the last two military rulers have been of immigrant stock). Mustafa Kamal is a product of the Musharraf era, just as Altaf was of the Zia era.

However, the agencies are less interested in solving the problems of the Muhajirs, than of maintaining the military’s ability to take power, or to hold it if taken. It should be remembered that neither Zia nor Musharraf are remembered as immigrants in the military; the former is from the Armoured Corps, the latter is a commando and a gunner. The agencies should have learnt by now that military interventions do not solve any problems, neither of Pakistan nor of the Muhajir community, but there is no other solution.

The agencies are thus condemned to repeat solutions, which past experiences show, do not work. Whether the agencies are involved in the attempt by Mustafa Kamal, his rhetoric is astoundingly similar to that of Amir and Afaq. It is interesting that the military has a commonality of views with the Muhajir community, and the devotion of both to the Urdu language is virtually emblematic. It is also worth remarking that the MQM and the military are both on the side of the USA, and against the militants, in the War on Terror. Mustafa Kamal’s attitude on this has not received much emphasis. It is almost as if it has not been determined whether he is to lead only Muhajirs, or become a national figure. Is he to supplement Imran Khan or replace him?

Whether or not Mustafa Kamal replaces Altaf, the very emergence of this revolt indicates that not all is well in the MQM. This might be a kind of pre-positioning before Altaf departs from the scene, but it also indicates the volcanic tensions within the party. In other parties, dissidents leave, often to join another party. That has caused ‘electables’ to seek the winning party of the day. However, rather than look to such examples, Mustafa Kamal would look to the example of the MQM (Haqiqi) leaders. Or else to Altaf himself.