MAULANA Fazlur Rehman has packed up his dharna in Islamabad and marched on to yet another ambitious protest phase, ie the so-called ‘Plan B’. Not many are optimistic about the plan, which entails blocking some major highways of the country. However, the maulana has somewhat succeeded in conscripting himself as a relevant actor in the existing political milieu, besides mobilising the young cadre of his support base.
The problem with the religious support base is that it can be mobilised only through using religious sloganeering and blending it with existing political contexts. At the onset, the core demands of the Azadi March were linked to the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the holding of new elections. But gradually, the maulana and other leaders of the JUI-F started to mix up things with religious issues. The mainstream media and political analysts somehow ignored the religious rhetoric used by the speakers at the Azadi March. But one of the key factors that held the participants together was the way they were provided with a religious orientation to understand the contemporary political scenario.
The maulana’s religious rhetoric remained focused on two narratives: first, that the regime has come under the influence of an ‘Ahmadi lobby’; and second, that this lobby is part of a Jewish-led international conspiracy against Pakistan. A religion-based oratory in such gatherings is understandable; however, knowing their targeted audiences, the maulana and his deputies did it on purpose.
In his early speeches, the Maulana also mentioned the establishment’s intervention in Pakistan’s politics, but gradually softened his stance on the subject. He has been employing and exploiting anti-establishment sentiments since long, mainly due to a growing resentment amongst religious circles about the establishment. But at the same time, as it appears, he also wants a renewed relationship with the establishment. And that, too, has a background.
The maulana has concerns about the establishment’s engagement with the clergy without taking him on board.
For some years, the establishment has been reviewing its approach towards the role of religion and religious actors in the country. Perhaps for that purpose, it has also been engaging religious leaders, including for providing them with ‘strategic guidance’. The Paigham-i-Pakistan document, a religious decree against extremism, and the recently achieved consensus on madressah reforms, are two significant, substantive outcomes of this engagement.
The maulana has remained concerned about the establishment’s engagement with the clergy without taking him on board. He may have conceived it as a deliberate move by the establishment to create a rift within the religious leaders of the country. The establishment’s short-lived romance with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) — a Barelvi religio-political party that secured around two million votes in the last election — added to the maulana’s grievances. However, his electoral defeat proved to be the last nail in the coffin.
The major religio-political parties, that were united under the banner of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, secured reasonable representation in parliament in 2002 and formed the government in two provinces, are in search of the same glory. By the time of the 2008 elections, the MMA had disintegrated and religious parties had lost their attraction. Since then, the Jamaat-i-Islami and JUI-F have started distancing themselves from the establishment, and sometimes even assumed anti-establishment postures.
Anti-establishment sentiments within the religious segment, mainly the madressah generations and cadres of the sectarian organisations, have been increasing, which has also led to the two parties keeping a safe distance from the establishment. Nevertheless, that does not mean these parties wanted a divorce from the establishment. This is the idea that the maulana apparently also wanted to convey to the powers that be.
Whether or not the maulana has been successful in conveying the message, his political agitation was certainly meant to regain the glory of 2002, which he believes is not possible without a good working relationship with the power centres. He also realises that the religious parties’ slogans have lost their attraction, and groups like the TLP are gaining more support.
As organisations such as the TLP are exploiting sensitive issues related to the blasphemy laws, the maulana’s recent tribute to Mumtaz Qadri, the killer of the Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, was a message to connect with the radical religious base. If he exploits this narrative well, it would strengthen his bargaining position vis-à-vis the establishment. While the establishment feels comfortable dealing with religious actors, the maulana also knows the tricks of manoeuvring.
The religious parties have comparatively better organisational structures and institutions, which help them mobilise their support bases at any time. They have street power and a religious cause as well, but what the maulana has learned from Prime Minister Imran Khan’s strategy is that political activism cannot necessarily be based on legitimate grounds. This strategy had paid off for the PTI from the time of the 2014 dharna to the 2018 elections, resulting in electoral success.
The maulana might be thinking along similar lines. He has already threatened that he will launch ‘Plan C’ if his demands are not accepted. It seems a grand strategy of engaging and motivating his support base, especially when other opposition parties have no priorities that involve launching an anti-government campaign at the moment.
Again, long-term protest movements need a new rhetoric every day, and for the maulana religious rhetoric would be a major option — which will also increase polarisation in society. In that case, he will lose the support of democratic and liberal segments, which influence cyberspace, thus causing some damage to his image. Perhaps he has different priorities and may fully capitalise on the religious support base, whose growth and expansion within the lower-income groups has enormous potential for meaningful electoral successes.
The maulana has full potential to become a populist leader, but like Prime Minister Khan, there are constraints on him becoming a Pakistani Viktor Orban or hyper- nationalist Narendra Modi. Class-based distinctions have emerged strongly in Pakistan in recent years, and each class wants a populist leader of its own sort. Imran Khan capitalised on the salaried and services-based classes, and the maulana can emerge as a populist leader of low-income groups, which are a tribal, rural and urban transaction. The maulana has narratives to offer and exploit the religious cadres’ grievances and identity crisis.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2019