Last week when PTI chief, Imran Khan, held a joint press conference with the head of the fundamentalist Jamat-i-Islami (JI) and hinted that his party may get into an electoral alliance with the JI, many frontline PTI enthusiasts on the social media were not impressed.
They are at pains to describe the PTI as a ‘genuine liberal party,’ some even argue that it is actually ‘leftist.’
Of course, thus far, PTI has largely come across as being a more animated and youthful version of the conservative PML-N.
PTI has tried to mix things up by placing one of its dancing feet in the idealistic potpourri of urban middle-class youth, while attempting to place its other foot in the muddy mush where a number of right-wing Islamist outfits have been rolling for attention. This is the mush where PML-N too has a foothold in.
If the JI does get into an alliance with the PTI, it will not be the first time this otherwise elitist Islamic outfit would allow itself to jump into the fry of populist politics.
From its controversial involvement in the 1953 anti-Ahmadiya riots in Lahore, to its participation in the raising of violent militant squads by the Pakistan Army against Bengali nationalists in 1971; and from its active role in toppling the Z A. Bhutto regime, to supplying the ideological rationale and manpower to Ziaul Haq’s ‘Islamisation’ project and jihad in Afghanistan, the JI has found itself to be at the centre of a number of controversial episodes that one can’t quite call democratic.
But why would Imran Khan who in recent months has been riding a wave of popularity be so willing to ally himself with the JI?
Apart from JI’s awkward past, it has never been an electorally strong entity. It has not managed to get more than five per cent of the votes in all the elections that it has taken part in ever since 1970.
Its main hurrah in this respect only arrived during the 2002 election when it was just one part of the religious parties’ alliance, the MMA. And even then many analysts insist MMA’s victory in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) was ‘facilitated’ by the ideologically schizophrenic Musharraf dictatorship.
Thus, Khan is certainly not in line to bag any additional number of seats if he allies his party with the JI in the next election.
And even though JI still has some muscle left on its otherwise creaking bones to gather a good number of people for rallies, Khan can now do that on his own.
So if one rules out gathering additional seats in an election or the fattening of political rallies as reasons for Khan’s romance with JI, what else is there for him to gain from the purposed alliance?
He hasn’t been able to give a more concrete answer himself, apart from that he thinks JI is one of the few ‘non-controversial’ and ‘clean’ parties out there.
Of course, Khan’s political naïveté and his simplistic (if not entirely selective) understanding of the country’s political history have never been a secret, so let’s just leave his reading of the JI at that.
However, there just might be some pragmatic meat after all behind Khan’s move to partner JI, or for that matter, to continue sending his ‘envoys’ to rallies held by far-right groups such as the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC).
JI’s vote bank which is more akin to generate spoilers than produce winners, mainly lies in pockets in Karachi, Lahore, central Punjab and parts of KP.
For example, in elections that were boycotted by JI, most of its votes largely went to conservative-democratic parties like the PML-N. In some incidents a chunk of JI voters voted for PML-N just so the JI candidate is not able to split the right-wing vote in the constituency and consequently produce a victory for non-right/secular parties.
So perhaps what is on Khan’s mind is a three-way fight (especially in the Punjab) between the PML-N, PPP and PTI, where Khan wants the JI vote to come to him instead of going to the PML-N?
In theory it makes sense. But statistics of the elections held since 1988 clearly see how rapidly JI’s vote bank has shrunk.
It is however true though, that JI votes continue to go to PML-N.
So does this mean that by warming up to Islamic outfits whose supporters usually end up voting for the much larger conservative political parties such as the PML-N and JUI-F, Khan is squarely going for the PML-N and JUI-F vote bank?
I believe so. By holding hands with the JI and flirting with DPC, Khan is trying to attract the right-wing and Islamic votes into becoming consolidated PTI votes.
If he also manages to break a few PPP votes then that will be a bonus because his other hope in this respect are the young first-time-voters. They are a mixture of formally apolitical (but socially liberal) urbanites and those who see Khan as some kind of a reincarnation of a more romanticised version of Z.A. Bhutto.
That said, there certainly is an ideological link between PTI and JI as well. Apart from being baptised into politics by right-wing figures such as Hamid Gul, Khan’s initial political training took place at the hands of former JI chief, Qazi Hussain Ahmed.
Though one can’t accuse Khan of being an ‘Islamic fundamentalist,’ he most certainly is right-wing. At least in the post-Cold War context in which many rightists have adopted a number of old leftist gestures, rhetoric and postures to address the concerns of societies disorientated by the economic and social fall-outs of things like globalisation, religious extremism and War on Terror.
Khan also seems to have a sentimental spot for JI. His idea about JI suggests that he views this party as an ideological powerhouse that just got blown away by the crude ways of populist electoral politics.
Some would also suggest that since Khan’s recent rise was shaped a bit by some powerful figures in the country’s intelligence agencies, it was only natural for him to make friends with the ‘B teams of the agencies’, such as JI, DPC, etc.
Whatever the case, Khan is very much his own man now. His popularity, if not entirely judged by superficial popularity polls, does have a genuine tinge to it.
His rendezvous with the Islamic right in the shape of JI or DPC may make some political sense, but he should also be conscious of the other side of the issue.
His manoeuvres in this regard are likely to make his more liberal supporters question his egalitarian postures and stands on things like religious extremism: not only the kind practised by sectarian and militant organisations, but also the sort of religious bullying members of parties like JI have had a history of.
Suffice to say, these are the kind of questions that are not answered by sharing sofas and stages with outfits known for having sympathies for Islamic extremists and for laws that have created more disorder than otherwise.