Although Dr Farooq Sattar has been in the public eye since he was first elected mayor of Karachi in 1987 it took him nearly three decades to come into his own after the MQM founder-leader Altaf Hussain crossed the red line one final time this week.
As someone described it on social media, Altaf Hussain seemed to have set off his suicide vest when he addressed his supporters and workers at the hunger strikers’ camp outside the Karachi Press Club as he incited attacks on media houses and launched a tirade against the country.
Given the sustained crackdown his party has been facing on account of its involvement in militancy and against the backdrop of charges that Altaf Hussain has been consorting with the Indian intelligence agency, the MQM leader found the pressure unbearable and seemed to press a self-destruct button.
There is no doubt that the man whose word was the law on the streets of Karachi will never again be a shadow of his former self.
There is no doubt that the man whose word was the law on the streets of Karachi, where many inhabitants lived and breathed at his pleasure, will never again be a shadow of his former self. What isn’t clear is how many others he will still take down with him as a result of his ‘suicide vest’ explosion?
Altaf Hussain’s huge support base in the sprawling metropolis remains intact as does, sadly, the ethnic divide which he exploited so skilfully to propel himself to power. But unless another Musharraf era is somewhere round the corner, the sort of muscle the MQM leader is accustomed to is going to be no more.
How will a man used to wielding absolute power, the power of life and death, over a city and its populace reconcile to being a much lesser mortal is the key question. The party may be at the receiving end of a crackdown but it’s impossible to say all the militants have been neutralised.
Some may be lying low and waiting for orders to strike or resurface with a bang. It is this uncertainty over the remaining muscle and a support base which will, for now, remain committed to the party founder that is forcing Farooq Sattar into his daily high-wire acts.
Having been forced or convinced to opt for silence at least for now, all those who know Altaf Hussain recognise that he has an immense ego, enjoys Pied Piper-like control over hundreds of thousands of followers in Sindh’s urban centres and remains unstable, volatile and incendiary in the best of times.
He is someone who doesn’t mind being videotaped fantasising about torturing opponents with power drills and hammers. His supporters insist their leader was mocking allegations that the MQM indulges in such practices when he was filmed making that statement.
But the relish with which the MQM leader was referring to such scenarios was scary and sickening at the same time, particularly because over the years dozens of bodies have been found dumped in and around Karachi bearing such torture marks.
To the reader whose sensibilities are offended by my mention of matters so grotesque and who feels my view is exaggerated, any reporter who has covered Karachi will bear me out. One isn’t living some morbid fantasy but making a statement of fact.
Every member of the ‘sector’ set-up of the MQM which the Rangers now seem to be dismantling as part of an intelligence-driven campaign must be aware that most of these charges are real and not imaginary or mere propaganda as the party often suggests.
Of course, many voters who show up in droves on election day to accord the party dizzying successes rubbish such allegations as propaganda and believe that they belong to a persecuted or at least a neglected community which, without the MQM and its leader, would be much worse off.
This state of siege does not afford the voter an opportunity to connect the dots and realise that over the life of the MQM whilst there have been crackdowns and lives lost in such actions, many leaders who Altaf Hussain perceived as disloyal or a challenge to his authority also met violent ends. Were their murders coincidental?
I can think of Azeem Tariq, Altaf Hussain’s second in command and the party’s chairman, Dr Imran Farooq who was once the founder’s right-hand man and senior leader Khalid bin Walid just to name three whose killing can’t be laid at the door of the authorities or any opponent. There are many more.
At the same time, so many of the grievances and the insecurity that led to the meteoric rise of the MQM, remain; one need only drive through Karachi and see the broken roads and mountain heaps of garbage as mere glaring symbols of why many in the city still feel alienated.
Critics argue that Farooq Sattar is doing what he is at the bidding of the party leader and once the crisis is averted it would be back to business as usual. I don’t have the means to confirm this or say with certainty it is rubbish.
But to me Farooq Sattar appears like I have never seen him these past 30 years. He sounds more, and more, like his own man albeit one who is fully aware of the pitfalls of the project he has undertaken. The authorities have two choices.
They could back him and help him steer the party gently and delicately towards distancing itself from Altaf Hussain’s politics and moving towards an entirely democratic ethos. Simultaneously, the mopping up of the militant wing elements should continue.
Or they could continue to express unhappiness that he hasn’t gone far enough via voices such as Mustafa Kamal and Amir Liaquat Hussain and have him subjected to daily media grilling questioning his motives to whatever end.
I would opt for the former. Wish I could read the minds under berets and peak caps.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.