A large dose of toxicity has been added to the political soup brewing in Pakistan. A long time member of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) announced the launch of a political party, the Milli Muslim League, recently.
Saifullah Khalid, known for his vituperative speeches against India, made some expected and unexpected remarks. While condemning the rise of "professional politicians" and the machinations of foreign powers like India and the United States, he also declared that the party recognised the importance of women in politics. Apparently, the JuD has honed its marketing skills and is ready to greet the rather less than brave new world in Pakistan.
There are several reasons for the JuD leadership to take to politics at this juncture, after twenty years of "charitable" work and creating mayhem in at least two countries. First, as Saifullah himself notes, the efforts of the reigning political parties to remove Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, relating to the character required of a Member of Parliament has incensed the party. It would also have infuriated his mentors.
While one article prescribes moral righteousness, the other bars those who have defaulted on loans from standing for elections. At one level, the across the board enthusiasm to get rid of these clauses showcases the severe corruption endemic in Pakistani politics. More to the point, however, it is these two clauses that give the security establishment the lever to hoist anyone out of Parliament or the highest office, as seen recently in the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif.
A JuD in Parliament in requisite numbers would be a brake on any such venture. Once inside, it would also decide on whether a nominee is "ameen" and knows his religious texts, as required under Article 62 (e). That's calculated to send a collective shudder through the Pakistani Parliament.
Second, election season is all but declared. Not only is the ex-prime minister, Sharif, campaigning on the streets, but Tahirul Qadri is back in Lahore, once more threatening to grab the political stage on the issue of corruption. Another relatively unnoticed development was reported by Pakistani media. There was a report of a group of religious leaders, headed by the savvy Maulana Fazlur Rehman, calling on Hafeez Saeed for his blessings in reviving the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a six party alliance of religious groups that had once been backed by General Pervez Musharraf to be the government's choir.
In the 2002 elections, it won a respectable 45 seats in National Assembly, taking more than 11 percent of the votes. That was the highest ever for the religious right. This time, with voters having a ringside seat on the court dramas on corruption, the religious right may be scenting a better chance for themselves. The security establishment may have reached a similar view, and decided that it could do one better. Thus, the sudden entry of the JuD into the political stage.
There is a third possibility. Saeed was somewhat hastily put under house arrest on 30 January, 2017, after it became evident that the new US Administration was likely to be intolerant of Pakistan's terrorist havens. Saeed is probably more than 67-years-old, and as a "hot potato", he may be quietly shifted aside to be an "advisor".
In addition, there have been intermittent rumours of rifts between him and Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, who remains the operational commander of LeT, despite still being part of the court proceedings on the 26/11 terror attack. Released on a bail of Rs 5,00,000 and ten years younger than Saeed, he is likely to want more control over the group, especially its huge funds.
The JuD can rival most business houses, running more than 200 schools, at least three large colleges, and cyber centres in major metropolises of Pakistan. The transition of the group from being a medieval outfit, which did not even allow photographs, to one that efficiently uses all available social media tools indicates not only larger resources at hand, but also a recognition that it has to 'rebrand' itself to accommodate the new generation. This is a group that can 'market' a political candidate if it chose to do so.
It needs to be remembered that this is not the first attempt by the group to inch into politics and near respectability. Over time, it has used organisations like the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation – which also does genuine relief and charity work – to project its benign image. The Difa-e-Pakistan Council, a grouping of more than 40 religious and political groups was used to showcase its political clout.
During the Musharraf period, the government had also encouraged the JuD to set up several trusts for charitable work. At the time, several local and foreign analysts had predicted that this would "turn" the group away from terrorism, and onto more peaceful activities. That didn't happen then. It won't happen now.
Foreign analysts will be tempted to see Saifullah's statement on the inclusion of women as a hopeful sign. However, the reality is different. As elections approach, religious groups will look for more partners in the fight for seats. In the process, extremists like the Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi will join the political process in new avatars, pushing the political dialogue further to the right.
With the JuD undoubtedly being the leader of the pack, a new Pakistan Assembly may look like nothing it has before. If Pakistan is sensible, it will deny the group a clearance by the Election Commission. But sense remains in terribly short supply. It seems there is more trouble ahead for those looking for improved India-Pakistan ties.
The author is former director of the National Security Council Secretariat
Updated Date: Aug 11, 2017 12:33 PM