THIS time last year, drone attacks, suspended Nato supplies, trade with India and, above all, relations with the US were issues that were causing political temperatures in the country to rise. The Difa-i-Pakistan Council (DPC) held centre stage, followed by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-F (JUI-F) and other mainstream and fringe religious and political parties.
The national and international media were speculating that the DPC could be transformed into a broader electoral alliance just as the Afghan Defence Council had given birth to the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) in 2002.
The PTI was ranked as the most popular emerging force with the ability to exploit religious and right-wing tendencies. In the last five years, religious parties have dominated street politics, from the DPC’s ‘long march’ to the sit-in of Tahirul Qadri’s Tehreek-i-Minhajul Quran in Islamabad.
So what has happened in a year that all the rhetoric, the slogans and the security- and foreign policy-based political issues have disappeared from the political scene? Where do the actors who were exploiting these issues stand now?
Although not much has changed on the security and foreign policy fronts, the religious actors are decidedly getting less attention in public debates and even on the media. The religious parties are struggling to make an alliance with mainstream political parties, at least to secure their representation in parliament. With the exception of JUI-F, they figure nowhere in the public’s perception. Even for the PTI it has been a struggle to sustain its momentum in terms of popularity.
The electoral milieu has entirely changed the scenario. The dynamics of electoral politics are different from what passes off as the normal political discourse in the country. The common citizen prioritises its day-to-day issues and considers which candidates and parties can provide solutions to his problems.
Of course, race, language, kinship and biradri remain important to him, but he also follows the collective wisdom of society. The composition of collective wisdom includes social, cultural, religious, geographical aspects, and a sense of economic and community empowerment.
The religious parties try to change this composition while exploiting one tendency or another. The religious-political parties engage in multifarious activities, including a process of religio-socialisation. They believe that political parties are not capable of bringing about the desired change since they only follow political norms and are accommodating of global, political, strategic and economic trends.
On the other hand, religious parties distinguish themselves on the basis of religion and consider themselves as the saviours of Pakistan’s Islamic ideology. They are generally suspicious of the country’s political leadership, which they believe wants to turn Pakistan into a secular state.
The religious parties shape certain ideological and nationalist narratives and paint themselves as custodians of the ideological interests of the country, but these narratives and slogans do not provide a solution to the problems that the common man faces everyday. This can be depicted as the gap between conceptual and physical needs, which religious and idealist parties fail to fill.
Ultimately, the religious parties are then only able to act as a pressure group, and try to influence the policy discourse of the country and their scattered support base, which is usually confined in urban pockets and helps them stay relevant in the democratic electoral process.
The mainstream parties, which try to maintain a centralist position, make an alliance with religious parties to gain two significant advantages: the obvious advantage of securing as many seats in parliament as they can; and attainment of ideological legitimacy.
There is a realisation in the main religious parties that they need to change their style of politics. The Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) had tried to do so and formed the Pakistan Islamic Front in 1993 to appeal more to the common man. The JUI-F managed to be part of the mainstream democratic discourse to increase its acceptance level, but its close association with the establishment remained a vital constraint that held it back.
Now major religious parties are striving to remove the tag of the establishment’s allies. The JUI-F seems to believe that it has accurately assessed the changing scenario and is taking a more pronounced anti-establishment stance and trying to gain ground in the political mainstream. However, the party is hampered by a conformist support base and deficient organisational structure. The madressahs have increased their influence in mainland Pakistan, but the madressah students and teachers mainly come from the peripheries and lack the capacity to influence the local political discourse.
In order to effect change, a good organisational network and likeminded people among the leadership are needed, and the JUI-F lacks both. The JI qualifies on both counts, but it is persisting with its previous political path despite the recent changes in politics, which is turning against the establishment.
Some negative influences from changes in the Arab world have arrived in Pakistan. Each school of religious thought is trying to interpret these through sectarian lenses. As tension increases in the Persian Gulf, the sectarian divide is increasing in Pakistan, which could prove a pull factor in the religious parties’ attempts to make their appeals more public.
One crucial aspect of the religious parties in Pakistan is their inter-sectarian electoral alliances, which they consider a major source of strength. The attempts to revive the MMA can be seen in this perspective, but such an alliance is only possible when the religious parties face common challenges and the requisite atmosphere for their style of politics is available where they can exploit ideological narratives.
The atmosphere was available in 2002 but had started losing its allure before the 2008 general elections. The current political scenario indicates that the religious parties have a challenge on their hands, i.e. to clarify their position with respect to the current state of violence in the country.
The mainstream political parties will certainly feel less pressure on that front as they had never claimed to be the custodian of the ideological realm of the country.
The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.