TLP’s ambition to enter mainstream nears realisation

Published January 5, 2021
The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan’s (TLP) plans to transform itself from a fringe radical group into a mainstream political party are slowly taking shape under a new leadership. — Photo courtesy Javed Hussain
The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan’s (TLP) plans to transform itself from a fringe radical group into a mainstream political party are slowly taking shape under a new leadership. — Photo courtesy Javed Hussain

ISLAMABAD: The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan’s (TLP) plans to transform itself from a fringe radical group into a mainstream political party are slowly taking shape under a new leadership and the party has announced the setting up of a formal secretariat.

The chehlum of Allama Khadim Rizvi, the leader of TLP who passed away in November last year, turned into a large gathering on Multan road in Lahore on Sunday and illustrated the ambitions of TLP to make its presence felt on the political landscape of the country.

“We wanted to hold the chehlum at Minar-i-Pakistan, but the authorities allowed it at Multan road and even then the permission was not granted up to the last day,” Hafiz Saad Rizvi, the son of Allama Khadim Rizvi and the new leader of TLP, told Dawn on Monday, adding, “we want to enter mainstream politics, but will not compromise on our original narrative”.

But there is more to the event than a remembrance of the man who stormed onto the country’s political landscape armed with emotive narrative and inflammatory rhetoric. If crowd numbers are a barometer of a political party’s popularity, Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) second gathering may be a reflection of its larger ambitions under a new leader.

Large gathering at Khadim Rizvi’s chehlum in Lahore illustrates ambitions of party to make its presence felt on country’s political landscape

Initially considered a fringe pressure group that may have been propped up to pressure the then ruling party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), two developments have helped push TLP towards more mainstream politics. The first was its surprisingly impressive performance in the 2018 elections. It emerged as the third largest party in terms of vote bank among the 14 National Assembly seats of Lahore in the 2018 elections, trailing only behind PML-N and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). On the national level, it bagged 2.19 million votes. Only four other parties — PTI, PML-N, Pakistan Peoples Party and Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal — got more.

The second development that has brought TLP prospects into serious consideration was the mammoth show of numbers at the funeral of Khadim Rizvi. By all estimates, it was the largest gathering of people at Minar-i-Pakistan for decades. Pictures and video clips of the hundreds of thousands of mourners gathered at the venue went viral on social media and triggered a debate about what this massive support base could mean for the party’s politics and the impact of its narrative on society.

Such an impact is already eliciting concern. “This is a very serious and dangerous trend,” says Amir Rana, Director of Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, in reference to the growing influence and reach of TLP. Mr Rana states that the rise of such an ideologically-driven organisation could mainstream a mentality that promotes mob justice.

‘Heir of our leader’

At the centre of this TLP outreach is the party’s new young leader Hafiz Saad Rizvi. He was appointed his father’s successor shortly after the death of Allama Khadim Rizvi. According to party sources, there was opposition from some senior members of the party to the decision of the 18-member Majlis-i-Shura to appoint the 26-year old Saad Rizvi as the party leader. They objected that he was too young for the responsibility and plus they opposed the hereditary basis of his selection.

Others disagree. “He is the heir of our leader and no worker will object to his appointment,” says Ijaz Rasool, TLP spokesman, adding that there was also a concern that the party might get divided if someone else was elevated as the leader.

The party has already experienced cleavages. Dr Asif Ashraf Jalali, a senior member, had parted ways with Allama Khadim Rizvi even before the TLP was formed while another senior member Pir Afzal Qadri had left the party citing health reasons in May 2019. However, he issued a statement against the appointment of Saad Rizvi as leader, saying he was the rightful choice.

With the leadership issue settled, the new leader has started to re-organise TLP and has already begun preparations to contest elections in case the opposition resigns from the assemblies. He acknowledges the funeral of Allama Kadim Rizvi was a turning point.

“The change in the social profile of our followers has taken even us by surprise,” Saad Rizvi told Dawn. He claims educated people from the urban middle class are joining the party ranks, adding that TLP is in the process of establishing separate wings for doctors, engineers and teachers in the party in addition to drafting a new manifesto.

Analysts believe TLP’s attempt to broaden its appeal is not without significance.

“Traditionally the Barelvis leaders have been based in rural areas and the religious based setup in urban areas did not have much of a political standing,” says Dr Umair Javed, professor of political science at LUMS.

He adds: “TLP has successfully harnessed this potential in urban areas and it is quite possible that followers of many other Barelvi groups may eventually join the TLP.”

There are allegations that TLP has been propped up by the establishment. Amir Rana of Pakistan Institute of Policy Studies agrees the establishment has provided space to the TLP but points out that this patronage is still less than the kind enjoyed by religious groups in the 1980s and 1990s.

He says there is a difference between TLP and other religious parties: “TLP has the narrative and a growing vote bank, now they need to have an organised structure for electoral success, while parties like Jamaat-e-Islami and other Deobandi groups have the structure but have lost the narrative.”

Published in Dawn, Jannuary 5th, 2021

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