Altaf Hussain’s Decline And Lessons For Imran Khan – OpEd


The enigmatic Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader Altaf Hussain previously had a firm hold on the city of Karachi. However, as disputes, crackdowns, and factional divisions undermined MQM’s power, this hold steadily faded. A number of leadership lessons may be learned from Hussain’s trajectory from being a significant political player in Pakistan to his final collapse, notably for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.

Under Hussain’s direction, the MQM significantly altered the sociopolitical dynamics of Karachi. The party gained major power starting in the 1980s and often used strikes and came together to apply pressure to government officials on subjects that were important to them. Such dominance did not come without difficulties. The MQM encountered substantial opposition, including members who vanished, media prohibitions, and other pressures that endangered its dominance.

Hussain’s downfall was caused by a number of things. He was a contentious figure because of his mix of apparent Nazism and political shrewdness. Further obstacles hurting his reputation were ethnic tensions in Karachi, the rise of alternative political parties, and charges of violence and criminality. By the 2010s, violence in Karachi had significantly decreased, a development that was credited to the government’s operations against criminals of all stripes. As a consequence, Hussain’s control over Karachi, as well as the MQM’s, decreased, making it possible for national parties to openly campaign there—something that the MQM’s dominance had previously made impossible.

In the past, whenever a power vacuum occurred, it was quickly filled, either by an up-and-coming leader or by turmoil and uncertainty. In Karachi’s case, it became a combination of both. New political actors, like the Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), aimed to appeal to MQM’s traditional voter base. At the same time, larger parties, like Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), saw an opportunity to consolidate their foothold in urban Sindh. However, this vacuum also posed challenges. MQM’s decline left behind not just political gaps, but also socio-cultural ones. For years, the party had been a symbol of Muhajir identity and aspiration. Filling this identity void while managing the city’s complex ethnic matrix is a tightrope Khan and his ilk need to walk. Khan’s PTI, meanwhile, championed a broader, pan-Pakistani populism. However, as Khan’s PTI seeks to expand its influence in urban centers like Karachi, it’s crucial to acknowledge and address specific local concerns. The grievances of the Muhajir community, left unresolved with MQM’s decline, present an avenue for PTI to build trust and consolidate support.

While Hussain operated from London for most of his political career, he maintained a robust connection with his grassroots base in Karachi, which was critical for MQM’s survival. Khan should take a leaf out of this book. Engaging directly with the grassroots, listening to their concerns, and being present among them will be pivotal for PTI to solidify its support, especially in areas traditionally dominated by other parties, and stop blaming the military for every single issue.

MQM, under Hussain’s leadership, underwent significant shifts in its stance on India and Western policy, reflecting the complex geopolitics of the region. Khan, too, must deftly navigate Pakistan’s international relations, particularly concerning its neighbors and major global powers. These international dynamics can influence domestic politics, and leaders must be adept at leveraging foreign policy for national gains.

So, what can Imran Khan learn from Hussain’s decline? Firstly, the power of adaptability is vital. Khan’s rise to power, like Hussain’s, is closely tied to urban sentiments, especially in major cities like Lahore and Karachi. While Hussain’s leadership remained static, adapting only in response to crises, Khan needs to remain dynamic, evolving his leadership style as the political landscape shifts.

Secondly, Khan must avoid controversial entanglements. Accusations, especially those related to violence, can tarnish a leader’s reputation beyond repair. Khan has already faced strained relations with political parties, highlighting the volatile nature of Pakistan’s political arena. Keeping a clean slate and focusing on governance can steer Khan clear of the controversies that plagued Hussain.

Lastly, Khan should understand that sustained dominance requires more than charisma. Hussain’s control over Karachi waned despite his influential personality as socio-political factors evolved and new challenges emerged. For Khan, the challenge will be to combine his charisma with effective governance and policy implementation.

Ultimately, Altaf Hussain’s decline in Pakistan’s political theatre is a cautionary tale of power’s ephemerality. For Imran Khan, this tale underscores the importance of adaptability, clean governance, and the integration of charisma with competence. Only by heeding these lessons can Khan hope to leave a lasting and positive legacy in Pakistan’s ever-evolving political landscape.

Dr. Sahibzada Muhammad Usman

Dr. Sahibzada Muhammad Usman is a Research Scholar and Academic; Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of Pisa, Italy. Dr. Usman has participated in various national and international conferences and published 30 research articles in international journals.

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