Altaf Husain, the volatile leader of the MQM in self-imposed security exile in London, has set conspiracy theories aflame. He says that martial law should be imposed by “patriotic generals” to sweep away the “corrupt feudals” of Pakistan. His public statement, delivered with classic sound and fury to the faithful in Karachi, has understandably been flayed by the “corrupt feudals” targeted and embraced by the urban middle-class moralists fulminating on the sidelines of politics.
The PMLN wants Parliament to censure Altaf Bhai for committing treason punishable by death under Article 6 of the constitution. The JUI is more pointed. Maulana Fazal ur Rahman insists that Altaf Bhai has been nudged by the generals to gauge the mood of the public and media in the midst of a developing political backlash against all politicians for abandoning the people in their hour of plight during the worst floods in living memory. The only two persons who have warmed to Altaf Bhai’s dangerous theme are Imran Khan, the successful cricketer-turned failed politician, and Pir Pagara, the maverick Sindhi wadera who prides himself on being “GHQ’s man” even as GHQ maintains a studied distance from him.
Mr Imran Khan has long wanted to be the army’s punter. Alas, he has never quite made it to the ranks because he’s a veritable Pandora’s box of contradictions and pet peeves. He kicked off his political career in the 1990s by espousing a curious brand of religio-tribal-nationalist morality in the middle of a westernized liberal personal life, including a marriage to a Jewish heiress even as he was assuring his adoring supporters at home that he would submit to arranged wedlock with a middle-class Hijaban in Pakistan! He supported Nawaz Sharif against Benazir Bhutto, General Musharraf against both Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto and lately Mr Sharif against General Musharraf and Ms Bhutto. Now he is anti Musharraf, anti-Sharif and anti-Zardari-Bhutto while angling to become an opening batsman and bowler for a truly “patriotic” team led by the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani! Curiously enough, when Imran Khan was put on the mat by discerning hacks for supporting the demand for an unconstitutional coup, he said the generals should step in to clear the decks, hold an election and exit. This, notwithstanding the fact that Imran Khan boycotted the last elections in 2008 that were supervised by the military under the watchful eye of the same army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, who is the last great white hope of the country!
Altaf Bhai’s statement abounds with contradictions. He says that generals in the past – an allusion to General Zia ul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf — have ruled in violation of electoral or constitutional mandates. Yet he is exhorting the same breed to intervene and save the country again. It may also be noted that both Zia and Musharraf were terribly partial to the MQM at the expense of all other parties. Altaf Bhai wants to know why, when the generals can topple constitutional governments, they cannot weed out the corrupt and criminal among them? In other words, it is all right to topple elected governments and violate the constitution if the object is to “cleanse” the system. But it is a moot point how Altaf Bhai would react if the same “patriotic generals” were to turn their guns on the MQM and cleanse Karachi of it like Generals Asif Nawaz and Naseerullah Babar in the 1990s. The MQM chief also takes issue with the current military establishment for running a “failed foreign policy”, especially with regard to India, even as he pins his hope on the same army for rejecting “dictation” by the West whose hospitality and citizenship he enjoys at the British tax paying public’s expense.
The popular conspiracy theory is that Altaf Bhai has been nudged to test the waters for some sort of military intervention to get rid of the Zardari regime. Past evidence makes this proposition credible. The MQM was winked at by the ISI to destablise the Bhutto regime in 1989 prior to toppling it in 1990. And the current numbers game in parliament suggests that if the MQM and JUI (another perennially pro-army player) were to pull out, the PPP government would collapse immediately.
The PPP’s response to Altaf Bhai’s latest outburst has been characteristically low key because it can’t afford otherwise. The cards are dangerously decked out.
If, and this is not such a big if in the present circumstances, General Kayani were to fancy a change in government, he would need the MQM in front and the SC solidly behind him. That isn’t a difficult job at all. For various reasons, the SC is already itching to raise a finger while the MQM is vigorously scratching the seam of the ball in broad daylight.
But the problem is not only how to get rid of Mr Zardari. The problem is also how to keep Nawaz Sharif out. If the army has contempt for Mr Zardari, it is fearful of Mr Sharif whose track-record as a generals-baiting populist politician precedes him. In the event, it will require more than “patriotic” generals, the MQM and the SC to accomplish this dual-edged task and put Pakistan on the rails again.