The maulana factor

Updated 09 Oct 2019


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

IN November 2007, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman hosted what was described in a confidential US embassy cable as a “jovial” dinner for the then US ambassador Anne Patterson. He is said to have sought her help to become prime minister and expressed a wish to visit the US.

Read: What the maulana wants

After the meeting, according to another cable accessed by WikiLeaks, the US ambassador mentioned the JUI-F chief’s “famously wily” political skills. “He has made it clear that his, still significant, number of votes are up for sale,” she wrote in an official memo to the State Department.

This was the period when Pakistan was in the midst of a popular uprising against Gen Pervez Musharraf’s military-led government, and the crafty maulana could well have seen an opportunity for himself as a major player in the emerging power game.

The JUI-F chief is trying to stay politically relevant. His desperation is obvious.

He headed the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal that was in power in KP at the time. He was also the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly. That made him one of the most powerful political figures in the country.

Like many Pakistani political leaders, he perhaps also believed that it required the support of ‘Allah, the army and America’ to reach the pedestal of power. There is little doubt about the maulana’s political ambitions — he could go to any extent to see the fulfilment of these. The support of the Divine and the army he would probably have taken for granted, but it was America’s support that he coveted. The JUI-F’s staunch anti-American public stance and his pro-Taliban image did not come in the way of his pragmatism.

One of Pakistan’s most colourful and devious politicians, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, as well as his party, remained an important part of the country’s power structure for more than two decades, irrespective of whichever government was in power. He was initially opposed to women heading the government calling it un-Islamic, yet he jumped onto the bandwagon when Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister in 1988. I still remember the maulana’s turnaround after just one session with her.

Since then, his party has been ubiquitous in each administration — if not at centre then surely in the provinces. Ideology takes a back seat when it comes to power. His support would, however, not have come without a price. His demand for a share in patronage also earned him the sobriquet of ‘Mullah Diesel’. His position as chairman of the Kashmir Committee virtually became a part of his identity for many years.

But the last elections proved to be his Waterloo. Not only did he lose his own seat, he also saw his party being virtually wiped out. He blames the army and America for the worst electoral defeat that his party has ever suffered. Adding to the disgrace was the fact that the elections brought to power his nemesis.

But not being one to take humiliation lying down, he vowed to bring down Imran Khan’s government. For that, he needed to pull together the disparate opposition groups. He used the much-tried formula of calling a multiparty conference in order to form an anti-government united front.

Their own grievances and reservations over the elections pulled in the PML-N and the PPP, though both remained wary. The maulana’s crusade against the Khan government was politically expedient for these parties under siege. Yet, there has been strong apprehension about the maulana’s own objective.

Understandably, both the PML-N and PPP rejected his proposal to quit parliament. It was apparent that with no significant presence in parliament the JUI-F has few stakes in the existing system, unlike the other two major opposition parties. They were happy with the maulana upping the ante, but they were not ready to burn their boats.

The maulana’s own games also make them more cautious about his designs. The first breach in the loosely knit united front came during the presidential elections when the maulana, instead of getting the opposition parties to agree on Aitzaz Ahsan as a joint candidate, got himself nominated by the PML-N, to the indignation of the PPP.

Another contentious point is the maulana’s attempt to play the religious card in his anti-government campaign. Being the head of the country’s largest religious political party, the slogan of ‘Islam is in danger’ comes in handy to whip up religious sentiments.

But one can ask what’s new in using the religious card for political gains. Almost every political party has used religion to undermine its rivals. The PTI government should be the last one to criticise the maulana on that count. Remember Imran Khan’s role in whipping up religious fervour against the PML-N government over missing a clause in the Election Act related to the finality of the Prophet (PBUH) just before the elections? The party also tacitly supported Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s sit-in on the issue. Such exploitation of religious sentiments for political objectives is a dangerous game whosoever plays it.

The maulana is now seeking to emulate the PTI’s past threat to put the capital under siege, though his objective is not very clear. He calls it an ‘azadi march’.

Both the PML-N and the PPP have taken a very ambiguous position, as they are not sure about the outcome. While extending their support, they are not willing to stake all their political capital on the maulana’s game. They know well that there are high risks involved in taking on the security establishment that is fully backing the PTI government. What the wily maulana is trying to do is to keep himself politically relevant. He has managed to stay in the news for the past one year despite the electoral setback. His desperation is evident.

Surely, over the years the JUI-F’s popular base has shrunk substantially but its capacity to mobilise the madressah students in various parts of the country cannot be underestimated. They may create a serious law-and-order problem though they can neither bring down the government nor force it to hold fresh elections.

The religious card against a government that claims it wants to establish a ‘Madina ki riyasat’ is not likely to work. The wily maulana does not seem to have any effective card to play, and his political misadventure may end up further dividing the opposition.

The writer is an author and journalist.
Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2019