DR Tahirul Qadri’s long march to Islamabad is over and done. It shook the political spectrum — at least for the five days that it held the nation in thrall. Whether it will produce any long-lasting impact and change the direction of Pakistani politics is doubtful.
As people continue to speculate about the ‘who, wherefore and what’ of the long march it is time to focus on one incontrovertible aspect of the event, namely, Dr Qadri’s ability to mobilise a huge crowd. I will not even attempt a guesstimate of the size of the crowd and start a debate on that. The fact is that the crowd was bigger than what we generally see in rallies organised by activists, to whom Najma Sadeque, a journalist, likens Dr Qadri. He himself doesn’t lay claim to political leadership.
The social and economic environment at present is most conducive to a movement for change. Despondency surrounds us. Unemployment has broken people’s backs. Violence is endemic. Utilities are in short supply. And above all, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for the vast majority.
The question to be asked is how did the leader of the march manage to pull off this show of strength when others fail? Najma Sadeque’s answer is, “He is, like many of us, an activist, except that he has huge resources and tremendous organisational abilities. Not surprising when he’s got hundreds of institutions not only within the country but also outside.”
She also remarks, “Dr Qadri may have a different way of doing things, not the way some of us may have chosen … He may not represent all the marginalised of Pakistan — who does? But he certainly represents a sizeable number who are suffering. He’s got people to take a stand, and put a rotten government on the defensive. Isn’t that what every activist and people’s movement, big or small, tries to do?”
Najma Sadeque’s analysis is spot on. But the key issue that needs to be studied — and it would be instructive for many activists of the left — is how could Dr Qadri mobilise such a sizeable crowd? True, they were people who have many grievances. But so do those who gather for protest marches and vigils called by the drawing room liberals (to quote I.A. Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan). How come Qadri’s supporters braved a cold and wet Islamabad to join the long march voluntarily? Why can’t activists, especially those claiming to speak for the marginalised, accomplish a similar feat?
To answer this question we need to understand what social mobilisation is. It basically needs a leader with organisational skills who is trusted by his followers, has a network of person-to-person contacts, and is able to offer sufficient incentives (not necessarily financial) and provide his followers a sense of participation. That proved to be the forte of the leader of Minhajul Quran International.
Technically speaking, political parties should be best equipped for this task. Regrettably, they are not as they have lost credibility. They do not deliver on their promises. The Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf enjoys an advantage in terms of credibility because it is untested so far. But Imran Khan’s strategy to build up services as an incentive — his cancer hospital and Namal College — is too limited in scope.
Dr Qadri’s focus is on the middle class and he aims to penetrate the social sectors where he has unlimited opportunities. His website makes impressive claims. Even if they are exaggerated they couldn’t be entirely untrue. The Minhaj chartered university in Lahore, 572 schools, 42 colleges, numerous cultural centres at the Union Council level, 3,000 libraries, 102 free clinics and blood banks all over the country would be connecting millions to the “Shaykhul Islam”. More are in the offing, it is promised.
Although Islamic teachings and rituals form a major point of reference, the man is clever. The education offered is also directed at teaching temporal skills. For instance, the Minhaj University has five faculties, apart from Islamic Studies, that offer over 30 courses ranging from Business Administration and IT to mathematics. He knows how desperate the middle-class youth is for affordable education that can be a stepping stone to a good job.
It is the only organisation of its kind that has an ongoing relationship with its members, although I do not feel too excited about its approach to religion. But the relationship it forges with its members certainly helps the organisation in mobilising them. Many religious parties, especially the Jamaat-i-Islami, have similar structures. They have a welfare wing to provide services and indoctrination that facilitates penetration. But they lack credibility because of their past performance.
This explains why advocacy groups fail to mobilise more than a few hundred to their protest rallies, although they also need to demonstrate their popular strength to make themselves heard. With a fire-fighting approach, they respond only when a crisis occurs. They do not have permanent linkages based on trust with the marginalised. This lack of permanent and credible structural relationships makes it difficult to mobilise people at the grassroots. Neither do the marginalised classes identify themselves with the numerous activists and advocacy groups who have only promises and nothing tangible to offer.
If they manage to get oppressive laws changed, the impact does not trickle down to the grassroots fast enough for the people to relate the change to the democratic process and the liberals’ strivings.