WHEN did the Jamaat-i-Islami have it so good on the national stage the last time?

Perhaps in the old ideological days when this country was divided across the left and the right. Or before the days it resigned to playing second fiddle to the PML of Nawaz Sharif.

The current row that separates the JI from today’s moderates is a formalisation of a split necessitated on the part of the PML-N by the demands of power.

Over the last 25 years since the end of the Zia era and the return of democracy in 1988, the Jamaat has won a few elections, including one local government poll in Karachi in the absence of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement.

Its biggest success was when it formed the government in then NWFP in alliance with the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam. But as solo runs go, the current sprint caused by Syed Munawar Hasan’s declarations about who is a martyr and who is not has to be politically most fulfilling for the JI in recent history.

Once, there would be leftists and then there would be the Jamaatis provoking each other. The divide was extended across territory and time, and quite often you would come across a remark which bifurcated the country into the Jamaat and PPP camps.

In those days, ideologically speaking, even someone like Nawaz Sharif who was yet to evolve a creed of his own would be readily categorised as a Jamaat sympathiser.

Thus, when Nawaz decided to give up a National Assembly seat in favour of a provincial one after his election on both in Lahore in 1985, everyone thought it was natural that his replacement in the by-election was a maulana from the Jamaat. The maulana won hands down, with Nawaz’s backing.

The partnership continued over the following many years. The Jamaat would be given a few seats and they would return the compliment by pledging Jamaat votes across the country to the PML faction headed by Nawaz Sharif.

This was far from a perfect partnership. Polarisation set in fast and there was a feeling that while Nawaz valued the Jamaat support in his effort to secure an election, his governments were increasingly constrained by the demands of this once natural ally.

The Jamaat also understood that it was losing its support base to the PML-N, which had over time found acceptance in the anti-PPP sections of the people as a more moderate and practical ‘right-wing’ choice.

Then-Jamaat emir Qazi Hussain Ahmed’s electoral Pakistan Islamic Front was an attempt at breaking free from the debilitating PML-N influence. The advancing Qazi failed to catch the people’s fancy and the Jamaat had to retreat and contend with its position as an appendage of the PML-N.

The ‘maturing’ of Nawaz Sharif in recent years since his return to Pakistan in 2007 has had its own ramifications for the Jamaat. In recent times, there has been growing criticism of the Jamaat over links with militant elements who shared its avowed dismissal of the US as the root of all ills, in particular the problems of the ‘Muslim world’.

This affiliation made it extremely difficult for a PML-N which was trying to sell itself as America’s trusted ally in power in Pakistan. An association with the loudest opponents of the war on terror could cost the PML-N dear.

Nawaz kept his distance from the Jamaat-i-Islami even when, viewed from the ideological prism of the 1980s and 1990s, some domestic political realities appeared to favour a re-alliance between him and the Jamaat.

Over the last five or six years, there have been moments when the Jamaat leadership has been found wooing the PML-N, and moments where it seemed to prefer Nawaz for an alliance over Imran Khan.

Especially in the period where it was impossible to put numbers to the public appeal of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, the Jamaat emir, Syed Munawar Hasan, did send feelers out for the PML-N leadership to respond to.

In one instance, the emir asked Nawaz to seek forgiveness for his past follies. It was as if, to Syed Munawar’s eye, a reunion between the Jamaat and the PML-N was a forgone conclusion and only subject to a formal apology from Nawaz. It was as if all the other details had been settled.

That wasn’t to be and even when the PML-N was confronted with a real challenge from Imran Khan, a Nawaz request for ideological reinforcement from the Jamaat was never on the cards.

Imran, on the other hand, had shown respect for the Jamaat right from the days when Qazi Hussain Ahmed was its emir. Not entertained by the PML-N despite reports about the presence of a solid pro-Nawaz group in its ranks, the Jamaat found a more compatible partner in the PTI.

This PTI-Jamaat alliance is essentially an alliance between two opposition political parties — an alliance, if recent political indicators are something to go by, can only be struck in the opposition.

The moment a power player feels that he is beholden to the international interests he would want to dissociate and split from the fundamentalist and extremist. Even the PTI has had to send an emissary to the US to read out the American messages about Hakeemullah Mehsud the Jamaat would find difficult to own up to.

Many of the terrorist-militants of today were at one stage part of the Pakistani establishment. They are one part of the old establishment many of the political parties are willing to trust more than the army due to ideological affinity or out of fear for their destructive power — unless these parties are in power or close to being in power.

The PML-N and the PTI, the two main contenders for power at the centre in the last election, may want to review their positions according to changed circumstances and prospects. The Jamaat has been more consistent and earned ideological rewards for this consistency.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.