It is, perhaps, symptomatic of the weakness of the regime that Tehrik Minhajul Quran chief Tahirul Qadri’s announcement of a long march on Islamabad should cause enough consternation to make Interior Minister Rehman Malik engage on shuttle diplomacy from London to Lahore. But his call for electoral reform, combined with his being the head of a religious party, have made it possible that he may well be working on an agenda that would lead to the imposition of military rule.
The fact is that his agenda of electoral reform has long been an excuse for military takeover. It was perhaps inevitable, very right from the first military takeover in 1958, the new regime has always justified itself on the need to cleanse politics.
Dr Qadri is relying on a definition of eligibility first propounded by a military ruler. Nevertheless, the desire for reform is genuinely felt by the people. However, no reform, including that proposed by Dr Qadri, will prevent the members of the political class from taking part in the political process.
Still, the people want a change, and that is one of the roots of Dr Qadri’s support. It might explain why Rehman Malik, after meeting Dr Qadri, called his a national agenda. It might have helped that Dr Qadri, to an extent, was helping the PPP damage the PML-N by continuing his old feud with the Sharifs, which dates back to the 1980s.
However, another factor has been how Qadri has appealed to the moderate segment of Muslim opinion.
Dr Qadri is avowedly a Brelvi, which means that his TMQ is an alternative form of political expression to the Jamiat Ulema Pakistan (JUP) that has been identified as the Brelvi political vehicle par excellence.
The JUP has not made much political progress, because Brelvis, who constitute the majority of the country’s population, do not need that much political representation, being well represented in the mainstream parties.
The same applies to the Deobandis, the other group. It would, probably, be going too far to call them separate schools of thought, for the two are both Hanafis, and their differences are over secondary issues.
Actually, Muslims are, probably, not Deobandi or Brelvi. The distinction is only meaningful for ulema, as indicating where they studied. Once they had actually studied at the great madressahs of Rae Bareilly or Deoband, but now it means merely that their madressahs were founded by a graduate of one of those institutions.
Now, there has been something of a structure imposed by the Wifaqul Madaaris system, with the various wifaq organised according to sect, with there being two Hanafi wifaq, one of Deobandi madressahs, one of Brelvi.
However, though they share the same texts in their madressahs, they have a different approach, which may be summed up, though without perfect accuracy, as the Deobandis being more puritanical.
It is interesting that Dr Qadri is a Brelvi from one of the two anti-Shia nodes of the Punjab, Jhang (the other being Kabirwala). There is an element of class conflict in this, for the large landlords are generally Shia, and have been opposed by Deobandi madressahs.
The one at Jhang had the late Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi as one of its graduates. Not only did he found the Sipah Sahaba Pakistan, for which he won the National Assembly seat for the area, but after his murder, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi was founded in his honour. Both parties have gone into the Punjabi Taliban.
One of the advantages that Dr Qadri has is that, unlike many Deobandis, he does not reject the concept of elections, which they condemn as being alien to Islam. This is not a Deobandi tenet, which includes the JUI, which is the preferred political vehicle of that school of thought. However, there is a strong current within Islam, which rejects the election of any law-making body as an infringement of the prerogative of the Shari’, or lawgiver, who is the Almighty Himself. This is the same current of thought which rejects the constitution as passed by a human assembly, and which seeks to override the Islamic system of ruling.
Far from going so far, Dr Qadri proposes reforms in the existing laws, and thus seeks to improve the existing system rather than replace it. However, despite Rehman Malik’s endorsement, there does not seem to be a rush to meet his demands.
There has been contact between the Prime Minister and the PML-N chief, but the government seems to be paying more attention to keeping its allies on its side than on stopping or encouraging the march. It must want to hold on to them in the next election, because there would otherwise be no point in holding on for the few weeks that remain in the current tenure.
An important factor is that President Pervez Musharraf thought highly of Dr Qadri. Clearly, he represents something military minds accept, a moderation which Musharraf also tried to promote. It should be noted that Dr Qadri is being set up to follow the same trajectory as Imran Khan and his Tehrik-e-Insaaf.
The problem appears to be that Pakistanis seem to be slipping from their old loyalties, and are no longer as reliant on the elections to solve their problems. This may well be because the problems they face are huge. However, the belief that elections will generate a leadership, which will be able to solve those problems, is wearing thin and precisely because the political class that gets elected consists of the kinds of people who should not be in the Assemblies.
It is, probably, noteworthy that this is the moment the Election Commission has chosen to make another reiteration of its intention to hold free, fair and transparent elections, and the Supreme Court of its intention to back it in this.
There seems to be an attempt to derail democracy and postpone elections, not by Dr Qadri’s agenda, but his assassination. However, though the threat has been made public, it does not perforce disappear because of that. He may be more useful alive because he can deliver more votes that way.
At the same time, it is also useful to political forces to scare away all but the most dedicated from the march by creating fear of an untoward happening. This fear itself shows how sensitive opinion is even to the possibility of military intervention in the system. If Dr Qadri is a military agent provocateur, he has ended up achieving the opposite of what he was tasked to do.
Both the main contenders of the next election, even if unreformed, have been hit by the march, and really have no choice but to let it through without any hindrance. Just as Imran Khan has not been able to translate his ‘movement’ into a tsunami, so must the major parties hope that Dr Qadri’s march will not prove more.
Though Dr Qadri, like Imran, has come in from abroad, and represents, like him, the aspirations of overseas Pakistanis for cleaner politics in Pakistan, he does not have the time to build a credible party. Thus, he will leave the parties to do what they want to - have a traditional election in the middle of the year, which will yield the same old faces, even if the party composition changes.
The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of TheNation. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org