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Weight of the moderates

December 08, 2017

ON the evening of Oct 10, 2002, a group of Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) activists gathered outside polling stations in the NA-124 Lahore constituency to celebrate. They believed they had won the seat voting which had ended a few hours earlier.

A victory would have been no flash in the pan so far as the MMA’s performance in that general election in 2002 was concerned. The alliance had done quite well in those polls. It had swept the NWFP — now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Even in the settled plains of Lahore, three MMA candidates — all belonging to the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) that according to experts combined Deobandi and Barelvi features as the remedy — had returned from three National Assembly constituencies.

There was a difference though. Quite unlike the loud campaign the MMA had mounted in the three areas in the Punjab capital where the Jamaat men had won, the alliance’s nominee in the NA-124 constituency had not generated too much noise. He didn’t quite have the profile of a Farid Paracha or Hafiz Salman Butt or a Liaqat Baloch, the successful JI trio that had a history of doing well in the Lahore elections, of course with the help of Mian Nawaz Sharif. To give an idea of just how much of an outsider the non-Jamaat MMA candidate was and what great odds he was faced with, he did not enjoy the crucial Sharif blessings in the contest. At least not publicly.

Aitzaz Ahsan was the PPP candidate for the seat. In honour of his role as the lawyer for Nawaz Sharif who had been deposed as prime minister three years earlier, the PML-N had chosen not to field a party nominee against him. Fortune tellers predicted an amble for Mr Ahsan, with some resistance from PML-Q’s Rohail Asghar.

It has always been a matter of giving a call and they are set to flock to the squares.

The results were startling. Not only did Khurram Rohail give the veteran Aitzaz a run for his money, ‘the little known’ MMA man, an allama not many in the mainstream saw coming, arrived within touching distance of knocking out the renowned heavyweight. Aitzaz got 27,000-odd votes to the more than 23,000 each polled by Khurram Rohail and the low-key, unnoticed MMA allama whose campaign had an almost surreptitious quality. The MMA man did outscore the PML-Q by 600 or so votes and to this day some of his supporters say he had actually secured an upset win which was overnight turned into a defeat.

The narrow win was later explained by applying the classic theory: the PPP voters will never vote for someone who hails from the PML-N and vice versa. This was further backed by the Aitzaz decision that had him run from another NA constituency as well, in Bahawalpur where he won hands down. But, ultimately, for anyone keen on looking for clues to future trends, the MMA’s near-heist was one of the most remarkable occurrences of that election in Lahore.

The man who came so close to causing that upset is Allama Abid Jalali, a respected Barelvi cleric in his own right. He is the younger brother of Dr Asif Ashraf Jalali, the current chief of the Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah which is now in the forefront of the movement to assert Barelvi interests in Pakistan’s politics. Dr Jalali is faced with a stiff challenge from within his school most seriously from Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi.

Barelvi groups have been trying and it’s up to you which instance from the past you choose to cite. By some accounts fed on the sheer numbers, it has always been a matter of giving a call and they are set to flock to the squares. In the same 2002 general election where Allama Abid Jalali provided a glimpse of the Barelvi quality to organise and challenge the mainstream players out of the blue, a few kilometres away in Lahore, Dr Tahirul Qadri offered a more public example of the Barelvi intent in the contest for NA-127. Dr Qadri won that seat narrowly, polling around 24,000 votes.

The two parallels, one manifest in Dr Qadri’s close election and the other in the attempt by Allama Abid Jalali to sneak into the Assembly, have been debated by Barelvis for long. The debate seems to have picked up in recent years just as analysts, eg Khaled Ahmed, have discussed the possibilities of Barelvi elements attempting a more assertive presence if not dominance in the face of fears about Deobandi hegemony, spurred by such developments as the Taliban’s rise.

At the same time, the subduing of forces hoping to create a mixture that appealed to large number from amongst both the Deobandis and Barelvis — eg the JI experiment — has added to the restlessness of those who have been craving greater control over proceedings. There’s also a feeling that the mainstream parties easily co-opt Barlevi elements within to the extent that they are rendered totally ineffective for any meaningful religious service. The Mumtaz Qadri hanging, a singularly salient event in history, acts as a catalyst. It has opened the floodgates.

One fear stalking the camp is that if the Barelvis let this opportunity go they will be pushed back to the position where the best they could hope for was trying to influence the established political parties from within. This is what the eminent Barelvis — these custodians of famous astanas and shrines — have been trying to achieve from within, inside the PPP, the PML-N, the PML-Q, etc.

These groups have recently seen how helpless and desperately lonely a moderate Dr Tahirul Qadri sitting in the National Assembly can be — to the point where he chooses to resign his seat. They know their strength from recent polls and from events such as the near-ambush they managed that October day in a complacent Lahore in 2002. They think they can do it by raising a slogan that is direct. They are eager to shed their moderate credentials which have become an unwanted burden on them.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, December 8th, 2017