NO parties and no two Octobers are alike. For students of politics, however, the question thrown up by Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s siege of Islamabad may not be dissimilar to a fundamental challenge presented by Imran Khan’s rise, most significantly reflected in his historic jalsa at the Minar-i-Pakistan on Oct 30, 2011.
Now, another rally is in the making, under the experienced command of Maulana Fazl. Apart from the size, shape and content of the two rallies marshalled by Imran then and the maulana now, one basic concern for the system is about how best to co-opt these leaders and their followers. They represent aspirations that cannot be ignored. The fear always is of them drifting towards depression and extremist positions if the system does not engage them in a meaningful relationship that, obviously, has to be based on some kind of promise for these groups.
The best available option is that these groups are allowed in parliament — they win seats in the election. But then, how many seats would satisfy the demands of an amiable co-option is a question that again doesn’t beget an easy answer. Imran Khan was provided with — or won — quite a lot of seats in the 2013 election, yet he didn’t yield to this co-option ‘compromise’. Instead, he launched a campaign against the alleged rigging, turning it into a potent movement that paved the way for his victory in the 2018 general polls.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman is no mean pretender. He has been rather irresponsibly dismissed. It is fun for us to join in the ridicule aimed especially at maulvis whose wrath we don’t fear — like Tahirul Qadri who is a source of some laughter for us. About him, his work and legacy some other time. Let’s for the moment stick to Maulana Fazl.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman has time and again proved his influence in both KP and Balochistan.
Notwithstanding the painfully trivial manner in which he is sometimes dealt with, he has time and again proven his influence in both Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. He would at this moment have us believe that his hurt and its causes were similar to Imran Khan’s post-2013. He has been saying that he personally and his JUI-F were unfairly deprived of many seats in KP, in an alleged effort to propel Imran Khan towards the centre.
In hindsight, it is being said that the maulana’s presence in the National Assembly might have saved the government from having to confront this threatening flood from madressahs now. But this is a weak argument. It doesn’t matter who is sitting in the house; parliament, as an effective forum for letting out steam, has been severely compromised by a PTI setup which is adamant to paint all old politicians as thieves.
What to speak of the JUI-F which has relatively fewer seats in the assemblies, the PTI government’s contempt for the current parliament has left even the PML-N and PPP agitating and fearful about what might hit them next. It is these thoughts about the uncertain future that keep the leaders of the PML-N and PPP away from joining hands with Maulana Fazl, which is quite natural for anyone who he can benefit from.
The question of not frustrating the participants of impending protests too much must not be taken too lightly. Once again the Pakistanis, who live in perpetual fear of the dark horsemen from another age taking over their land, are up and reminding the handlers to be careful lest they invite the frenzy of those who we must always try and co-opt. But it is a tough task considering that parliament as a tool to defuse tensions continues to be ignored. Also the PTI narrative has used Maulana Fazl personally to build the image of its own leader, Imran Khan.
It is not just the election results that have led the maulana to his present state of mind. There are other factors that signify the bitterest kind of rivalry between Imran Khan and Maulana Fazlur Rehman. In the speeches of the PTI leader, the JUI-F chief has been a metaphor for corruption, someone who is ready to drop his principles at the first flash of worldly gains. There have been times that Maulana Fazl, one of the prime PTI rivals for votes in KP, has figured more prominently in Imran Khan’s corruption refrain than even Asif Ali Zardari, who is a regular in all stories about how the dirty politicians have looted the Pakistani people over decades.
Maulana Fazl’s presence has helped the PTI chief build his image over time. Until the Minar explosion eight years ago, the PTI was introduced as a party of well-meaning Pakistanis, both at home and abroad, straining for power. As ideologies go, it was routinely characterised as a good-looking Jamaat-i-Islami seeking to use its right to assert itself in national politics. It didn’t quite mind the Jamaat label, and indeed, during those days of struggle, as well as after the PTI emerged as the single largest party in KP after the 2013 election, Imran Khan actually showed a willingness to partner the JI in power.
This was perhaps due to the good relations that the PTI and Jamaat had enjoyed in Lahore. In the plains of Punjab, according to some evaluations, the JI, unlike the JUI-F, was still an ally that could score you the few thousand extra votes so crucial to winning or losing. In the KP, by comparison, the PTI had already shown considerable potential which, ultimately, put a huge strain on its relationship with the Jamaat, eventually breaking the alliance.
There were obviously some very basic reasons why the PTI and the JUI-F happened to be the fiercest rivals in the Pakistani political arena right from the beginning. It has been noted that the maulana, right from the start, was compelled to go gunning for Imran Khan, who himself was seen as a maulvi type with close links to where Maulana Fazl drew his ideological strength. The battle we are in the middle of now had long been inevitable.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2019