BACK in October 2011, the conspiracy was to deny the PML-N its vote bank. Less than 14 months later, the party is the first to publicly recognise the threat posed by Dr Tahir ul Qadri, formalised by his massive one-man show at the Minar-i-Pakistan on Sunday.
This time it is not simply about the theft of a vote bank: it is a serious attempt at stealing an entire election — by preventing an election.
Allama Qadri is labelled as an agent of the establishment. He is certainly a harbinger of a thought that has repeatedly caused interventions in the system. He is so far the most damning piece of evidence in the proof basket of those who have been foretelling a postponement of elections.
It matters not if these doomsayers are supported by classical factors. The pessimism of the past has not dissipated and those who should have participated in the reform process continue to exist at a distance from popular aspirations. This creates a lot of room for interventions — until now carried out by the judiciary at the cost of a smooth parliamentary system.
Allama Qadri’s ‘the state first’ refrain is a throwback to the days when he had launched his legal-scholarly-political career some three and a half decades ago during Gen Zia’s time, on the right side of the martial law dictator. In that way it is a return to base for the Allama. In the following years, he tried to play political mentor rather than being reduced to acting as an intelligent religious leader patronised by Punjab’s ruling family — the Sharifs.
He drifted around and set up Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT), by all definitions and purposes a political party which couldn’t quite evolve into an efficient machine with any real electoral prospects. Then he offered himself for co-option. In the 2002 election, he did manage to sneak into the National Assembly from a Lahore constituency when the Sharifs, no more under his tutelage and influence, were living in exile.
Dr Qadri sat in the Assembly and waited for his wisdom to be invoked in the interest of a country that badly needed reform. No one came to seek his guidance and he cut a rather lonely, even at times forlorn, figure in the National Assembly.
Gen Pervez Musharraf also chanted ‘Pakistan first’ but chose to run the affairs by co-opting the same old players. Then one day Allama decided he was not going to waste himself in a useless house. He left the Assembly and some time later, departed from the country, choosing the all-too-familiar Pakistani course of preparing his followers for a change by remote control.
He had spiritual powers to do the long-distance job. During his physical absence Allama Qadri’s presence in the country has been well-maintained. In his adopted hometown of Lahore signboards adorning his pictures have increased. Tehrik-i-Minhajul Quran, the organisation he set up many years ago, has grown and today has a very visible, prosperous presence.
He has hundreds of thousands of supporters all across the country and outside Pakistan, many of them rich traders with the capacity to spend a few millions at the command of their leader. To these supporters Dr Qadri, with his knowledge of faith and the world, is a true embodiment of what every Pakistani politician wants to be: the right mix of religion and modernity.
Given Allama Sahib’s wide network, the huge gathering at the Minar had been predicted. It is also well-known that his wealthy followers can provide the cash for the rally, a large number of his supporters having the means to self-finance the trip to the Pakistan-resolution venue.
The point was when and where the leader — or his powerful backers — wanted the faithful to spend their money and energy. For a seasoned campaigner having erred on at least two previous occasions (during the Zia and Musharraf periods), it had to be a sound, minimum-risk investment at this stage in his politically unfulfilled career.
This was a real cracker of a return at the resolution grounds at the Minar — considering the numbers and the threat inherent in the message. Allama Qadri warned the government to bring the house in order in accordance with the constitution within three weeks or brace for a long march on Islamabad in mid-January. He says the polls should be delayed until the time these most essential changes have been carried out.
Allama Qadri is a trained debater and has kept his options open for expansion of his case. He has threatened a march but has fallen short of elaborating what the four million marchers are supposed to do after they arrive in Islamabad: make a bid for power — of course as the next stage for establishing real constitutional democracy here — or return as marchers for justice did a few years ago?
Allama Sahib raises fears of nightmarish proportions. Those who were looking for a protagonist for all these rumours about a delay in polls to be taken seriously do have one now in Allama Qadri. Those who said the pioneer had to be then joined by important political players must also take note of the MQM’s much-publicised closeness with the PAT leader.
The refrain about it being an emerging front which enjoys the blessings of the ‘establishment’ could fast swell the ranks inside the Qadri camp. The intervention came at a time when the politicians were poised for an election, which brought out the most acrimonious side of them to the fore. The agents of postponement will now try to use these images to promote their country-before-politics slogan.
The old question remains: can those in the opposite camp unite and fight back? The politicians will be painted as villains until everyone recognises their right to fight one another. These reform calls are nothing more than an attempt to partner and promote certain players in the game and give them an unfair advantage.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.