In November 2019, the American political analyst Patrick Liddiard wrote in an essay on the Wilson Centre website that, recently, the world has seen an increase in social movements by groups who feel alienated by mainstream political parties. However, even though many such movements have been successful in bringing out thousands of people to protest, according to Liddiard, their success rate in achieving their stated aims is under 30 percent.

For Liddiard, one of the main reasons for this is that a majority of these social movements were not attached to, or backed by, an organised outfit. He gave examples of the 2019 social movement in Sudan against the dictator Omar al-Bashir and the populist ‘Yellow Vest’ movement in France. The movement in Sudan succeeded in ousting Bashir because it had the backing of a large alliance of professional trade unions. Meanwhile, the Yellow Vest movement, which was not affiliated with an organised outfit, saw its influence usurped by organised right-wing parties. 

Then there is the case of the ‘India Against Corruption’ (IAC) movement in 2011, which attracted thousands of Indians, mainly from the middle classes, to come out and protest against the then sitting government led by the Indian National Congress. The purpose of the movement was to pressurise the government to advance an anti-corruption bill. Even though the movement succeeded, as happens in most movements, IAC’s list of demands subsequently lengthened.

Encouraged by the large rallies that it had managed, one of the IAC’s leading figures, Arvind Kejriwal, decided to transform it into a mainstream political party. But the movement’s other main leader, Anna Hazare, saw himself being above mainstream politics and refused to have anything to do with Kejriwal’s plan. 

Kejriwal’s party was successful in winning a large number of seats, especially in Delhi, whereas Hazare was gradually pushed out of the limelight. According to Liddiard, despite an increase in the number of social movements which, like Hazare, see themselves as independent and beyond politics (and sometimes ‘anti-politics’), there is enough evidence to claim that a majority of people still vote for organised parties.

Political parties born out of social movements, such as TLP and PTI, share volatility and internal contradictions because of a lack of investment in organisational structure

The support that the Yellow Vest movement attracted in France transformed into votes for organised far-right parties. And had Kejriwal not formed a party, an even larger number of the anti-Congress vote from IAC would have gone to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). 

Recently, the government of Pakistan banned the far-right Barelvi Islamist Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). The TLP had emerged as a movement in 2015, led by the late charismatic cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi. The goal of the movement was ostensibly to safeguard the country’s controversial blasphemy laws and constitutional decrees against the Ahmadiyya minority. 

Rizvi and his supporters believed these were under threat from mainstream (non-Islamist) political parties. But built into this narrative was also a projection of victimhood, in which the country’s Barelvi majority was seen as a victim of neglect by the state, and of violence from militants belonging to the Deobandi Sunni sub-sect.

Rizvi drew thousands of people in the many sit-ins that TLP organised. Much of his support came from the working class and lower-middle class segments of Punjab. Not only did the movement attempt to monopolise the ownership of blasphemy laws — using them as a threat against its detractors — many TLP supporters were willing to do the bidding of those religious, political and state actors who want to use the blasphemy law against their opponents.

Buoyed by the rapid expansion of the movement, Rizvi did not hesitate to transform it into a political party. Some analysts believe that Rizvi was encouraged to do so by the so-called ‘military establishment’— to usurp Barelvi votes that once went to the centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in Punjab, thereby aiding the electoral ascendency of another centre-right party, the ‘pro-establishment’ Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).

Indeed, the establishment does have a history of patronising militant Islamist groups for ‘geo-strategic’ purposes. But once these groups begin to spiral out of control, a ‘mainstreaming’ process is initiated, in which the outfits are encouraged to transform into political parties.

Most of such groups belonged to the Deobandi sub-sect and fared badly at the polls. But they were all hardened militant outfits and not movements. The exception to this routine was the militant Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which described itself as a movement but never transformed into a political party. There is no evidence to suggest that it was ever given the choice of mainstreaming itself.

But whereas military operations, mainstreaming and eventual electoral failures pushed Deobandi militants into the background, the Barelvi sub-sect, often perceived as a proponent of tolerant Sufism, filled the void. However, the religious extremism associated with the Deobandi outfits between the 1980s and 2014, also had an impact on the Barelvi religious leadership. It began to adopt the rhetoric and propaganda tools of the TTP and other non-Barelvi sectarian groups. 

There is every likelihood that TLP was encouraged by the success of its rallies as well as by state operators to convert itself into a mainstream political party. But, unlike other radical Islamist movements and groups that went through the mainstreaming process, TLP surprised pundits by becoming the sixth largest vote-getter in the 2018 elections.

But if it was originally intended to disrupt the PML-N, Muttahida (MQM) and Peoples Party (PPP) vote banks in 2018, the results of some recent by-elections in the Punjab suggest that it is now eating into the PTI vote bank.

Perhaps this is why PTI Chairman and current PM, Imran Khan, was slow to comment on his own government’s move to ban the TLP, after the TLP’s activists went on a rampage, killing four policemen. Of course, the decision to ban the TLP was certainly influenced by the country’s security institutions, because the PM’s statement on TLP violence sounded more like an apologia than a condemnation. The ban — if it lasts — is likely to dissuade former TLP voters from voting for PTI. 

According to the political scientists Herbert Kitschelt and L. Tossutti, many movements that become parties try to maintain the image of the political ‘outsider’ in order to retain the loyalty of their core sympathisers. They often suffer from volatility and internal contradictions because they do not invest in organisational structures. According to Kitschelt, for this reason, movement-parties suffer from a lack of internal coordination, which can prompt voter defection as well as the exit of members and leaders, even the initial founders.

One can thus suggest that these may be the reasons that triggered TLP’s eventual implosion. But more interestingly, these can also be seen as the reasons behind the fumbling ways of the PTI government as well. After all, PTI too is a party that was born from a movement. 

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 25th, 2021

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