Hafiz Naeemur Rehman
Hafiz Naeemur Rehman

KARACHI: It was early 2021, and a sizable crowd had gathered at one of the city’s busiest commercial centres for the opening of a pharmacy set up by Jamaat-i-Islami’s welfare arm — Al-Khidmat. They were eagerly waiting for the party leader who would grace the inauguration.

A car soon stopped near the gathered crowd, and JI’s Karachi chapter emir, Hafiz Naeemur Rehman, stepped out. Catching their first glim­pse, the crowd encircled him; some were enthusiastically shaking his hands and others took out their phones to click selfies with the JI leader.

The fervent salutations took so long that the organisers had to announce that the ceremony had been delayed a little “due to unavoidable reasons”.

Among the crowd were also many journalists, one of whom noted that Mr Rehman is “creating [an] impact” and said it wouldn’t surprise him if JI managed to dent other parties’ vote bank in upcoming elections in Karachi.

The prediction did hold some truth; in the three elections that followed, Mr Rehman’s popularity helped the party stage a strong comeback in the city, where it had been effectively wiped out in the 2018 elections.

In the Feb 8 general election, the party’s vote bank increased by 177 per cent, from 280,000 in 2018 to 775,000 in 2023, according to ECP data. Many attribute this jump in popularity to Mr Rehman’s active leadership.

Oath-taking

On Thursday, Mr Rehman, 52, took oath as the sixth emir of the JI at a jam-packed ceremo­ny at the party’s Mansoora headquarters.

After taking the oath, Mr Rehman laid out his agenda in an elaborate address, touching on all issues confronting Pakistan i.e. a democratic deficit, sinking economy, recent elections, questions over the role of the judiciary and army, etc.

“The JI does not recognise those imposed on us through Form-47s and the party must prepare for a movement to correct this electoral mistake. We also do not acknowledge all those parties running as dynastic and family concerns or drawing legitimacy from a ‘will’. All those seeded in establishment’s nursery also fall in the same category,” he said.

But for a party known for its more measured orators, Mr Rehman adopted a more populist approach, winning over the crowd with his rhetoric. By the end, he was so overcome with emotion that he seemed to be blinking back tears.

Vocal populist

A graduate of Karachi’s NED University of Engine­ering and Technology, Mr Rehman led the party in Karachi for a decade.

Observers see him as both an unconventional choice to lead the right-wing party, as well as a leader who would help JI “reconnect with the ground realities and requirements of electoral politics.”

Mr Rehman is known for his populist approach and vocal leadership.

“There was a huge vacuum in Karachi’s politics with no party — even those with a mandate from the city — becoming a voice of the locals,” said Kashif Hafeez of Pulse Consultants, a nationwide social research organisation with studies on several issues of Karachi.

He added that the vacuum presented Mr Naeem with a chance and he became “the only voice” raising the issues faced by Karachi’s residents.

A daunting task

Since Mr Rehman’s appoi­ntment as the JI central emir earlier this month, there has been only one question on people’s minds. Can he replicate his success in Karachi at the national level?

When Dawn posed the same question to the JI leader after his appointment as the emir, he gave a brief answer where he emphasised giving hope to the masses.

“The youth of Pakistan is so disappointed; we haven’t witnessed such pessimism before. We are here only to give them hope.”

When asked about the solution to multiple crises faced by the country, he said, “I think that everyone, whether institution or individual, would have to go back to their constitutional domain. That’s it.”

For observers who have closely watched JI’s politics over the years, the new role would be an uphill challenge for Mr Rehman.

“It would be a great challenge [for Mr Rehman],” said senior journalist Mazhar Abbas, adding that he has only seen the politics of Karachi. “It’s yet to be seen how he makes moves in KP or Balochistan or Punjab.”

Ahmad Fraz Khan in Lahore also contributed to this report

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2024

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