Is the Maulana looking for a vacuum?

He also seems to be motivated by the rise of anti-establishment leaders around the world like Modi, Trump

Sarwar Bari November 13, 2019

What does Maulana Fazlur Rehman want to achieve from his so-called Azadi March? And what has pushed or pulled him to this stage? Why are other opposition parties not sure of their participation? Finally, will he achieve his objective(s)? Before examining these questions, let’s look at the context first.

There is almost a consensus among political commentators that the Maulana and his close associates are extremely pragmatic and astute politicians. They can join hands with anyone provided their needs are fulfilled.  Reportedly, he had offered his services even to the US ambassador should America support his ambition to become prime minister of Pakistan. He, along with the late Qazi Hussain Ahmad, had formed the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) prior to the 2002 general elections. The authorities under the “secular” leadership of General Musharraf cleared the ground for MMA’s victory in Balochistan and the NWFP (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa). As a result, religious parties grabbed an exceptional number of votes and seats there. In return for this favour, the MMA helped Musharraf win the presidential race and let the 17th Constitutional Amendment pass by parliament.

Also, an unprecedented phenomenon enriched our electoral history in 2002 - an extreme split voting pattern was found between the national and provincial election results, which exposed the pre-poll sponsored arrangements. For instance, the MMA obtained 1.4 million votes for its NA candidates from K-P while just 0.8 million for its PA candidates from the same province. No party ever had such a split voting including the MMA, neither before nor after. Of course, this was an outcome of a pragmatic and secret seat-adjustment plan. Therefore, it could be argued that the religious parties didn’t just have the ideological vote bank. So, who were they? I leave the puzzle to readers to solve it.

However, if we take those 600,000 split-voters out and compare the vote bank of MMA’s member parties since GE 2002, there appears a fluctuation. In GE 2018, the MMA gained more seats and votes for the NA and the Balochistan Assembly after 2002. However, for the K-P Assembly, its share in seats and votes dropped heavily. This happened due to the PTI’s popularity in the province. Interestingly, the election results announced by the ECP reflected many similarities to the Herald-SDPI opinion poll which was released about a week prior to the polling day of July 25. Other pollsters had also showed a PTI lead in K-P. Therefore, Maulana’s claim of rigging seems to be Machiavellian.

Despite maintaining its vote bank and seats in the NA, why is Maulana Fazl bent upon creating chaos in the country? And why didn’t the Jamaat-i-Islami - a major ally of the Maulana and part of the MMA - and other religious parties join him? Moreover, why are the so-called secular parties jumping to his cause? Another important question which new anchors and political commentators are reluctant to ask is: why is the Maulana targeting the beneficiary and not the benefactor? He is even reluctant to name it. He is definitely not a coward. Perhaps, he is trying to be the next beneficiary as he was in 2002.

In my view, as an extremely astute and far-sighted politician, the Maulana comprehended an emerging leadership vacuum in the country as the Sharif dynasty, as well as of the Bhutto-Zardaris, were to be weakened radically soon because of their alleged corruption and poor past performance. Even If Imran Khan performs well, a real opposition leader would still be required. This is natural. A man who can grab the bull by the horns is often followed by people. Just recall ZA Bhutto. Before him, there were many leaders - stalwarts like Nawabzada Nasralluh Khan, Mufti Mahmud, Bacha Khan, etc, but Bhutto posed the real challenge to Ayub Khan. When Ayub Khan invited the traditional opposition leaders, Bhutto boycotted the conference. The conference was sabotaged. Resultantly, he emerged as one of the main winners in the forthcoming general elections. Imran Khan too adopted aggressive posturing. He challenged all those who remained in power and amassed wealth but failed to deliver services to the public. There was literally no opposition in the country when he launched his campaign. Like Bhutto, Imran Khan too reached out to every corner of the country. The Maulana is highly likely to have his inspiration from this phenomenon.

He also seems to be motivated by the rise of anti-establishment leaders around the world like Modi and Trump. Therefore, he has to take a very aggressive position, like demanding of a duly elected Prime Minister to resign, ordering his followers to arrest an incumbent PM, threatening the permanent establishment and occupying the capital, and issuing an ultimatum to the authorities. No one in the past has gone to this extent. He thinks this would attract and incentivise all those disgruntled from the PTI government, making him popular in Punjab. Mentioning the protesting doctors, teachers, farmers, nurses and workers in his speeches seems to be part of his strategy. He thinks they would join him and help build his popularity in Punjab. As a result, those electable political dynasties gradually realising that the Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris would soon lose their “popular” appeal, may jump onto his bandwagon.

Perhaps he doesn’t realise that by providing his dharna stage to former corrupt rulers, he is cutting the tree on which he is sitting. Moreover, unlike ZA Bhutto and Imran Khan whose appeal crossed sects, religions, languages and social classes, the Maulana is heavily relying on just the Deobandis and primarily Pashtuns from the tribal belts of K-P and Balochistan. I am basing this on an experience a friend and I had during our visits to the dharna, last Friday and Saturday. I never had such a frightening feeling in any previous political gathering as everyone - literally everyone - was staring at us as if we were aliens. Finally, we thought we should engage with someone. Within a few minutes, five to six bearded men carrying sticks joined the discussion and one of them asked us who we were. Our reply was: Pakistanis. He wasn’t happy. He said, “I wanted to know your religion.” We told them what we are. One of us, a Christian, put them on the defensive by challenging them about what was wrong in being a Christian. They immediately became apologetic and said their leader provided a stage to secular leaders and their party nominated non-Muslims as MPs. Yes, that was done because it increased their political power. But, the Maulana’s political base will remain in the decades-old constituency and he would love to keep it frozen in history.

A buildup of a huge political vacuum on the horizon is visible. Someone will have to fill it, but certainly, it will not be the Maulana.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 13th, 2019.

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