Maulana Fazlur Rehman ratchets up rhetoric with Azadi March in Pakistan, but cleric needs deep state support to rattle Imran Khan

  • The political storm raised by Maulana Fazlur Rehman in Pakistan is not likely to subside easily.

  • Street protests have long been part of Pakistan’s political theatre, but the Maulana’s present foray has some puzzling aspects.

  • One puzzle is why the Sharifs played party pooper on the Lahore leg of the march.

There’s a typhoon of sorts coming up on the political scene, and it is not the super cyclone Kyarr, which petered out in the Bay of Bengal after a lot of noise and bluster. The political storm raised by Maulana Fazlur Rehman is not likely to subside quite so easily. Crowds are swelling and the cry of “Go Imran’ is getting louder since the ‘Azadi March’ started off from Karachi on 27 October. At of the time of writing, thousands of protestors were just 7 kilometres away from the ‘red zone’ that houses the entire bureaucratic enterprise of Pakistan, including the Prime Minister’s Office. Of course, Imran Khan did breach this area during his own 2014 ‘Azadi march’, so he can hardly complain.

Street protests have long been part of Pakistan’s political theatre, but the Maulana’s present foray has some puzzling aspects. First is the sheer size of the crowd. One observer put it at about 70,000 as it passed through Lahore. It has got even bigger since then. The Jamaat Ulema Islam (F) does have a large number of madrassas it can count on, but that alone doesn’t account for this turnout. The Awami National Party has also brought in its supporters, while the Pakistan People’s Party and Nawaz Sharif’s PML(N) have also responded, but mildly. In addition, any politician worth his salt knows that assembling, moving and providing supplies to such a large crowd could cost billions. The Maulana is no pauper, but this is beyond him. As a Deobandi cleric, he may be getting financial support from ‘like-minded’ people elsewhere.

 Maulana Fazlur Rehman ratchets up rhetoric with Azadi March in Pakistan, but cleric needs deep state support to rattle Imran Khan

Leader of Islamist party 'Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam' Maulana Fazlur Rehman, center, waves to his supporters during an anti-government march, in Islamabad, Pakistan. AP

Another puzzle is why the Sharifs played party pooper on the Lahore leg of the march. Party workers simply didn’t turn up in droves as promised, and not a single leader chose to take to the stage. This was despite a letter from Nawaz Sharif asking the party to give the Maulana their full support. It seems therefore that the PML(N) is no longer the monolith it once was. It also seems to indicate that Shehbaz Sharif, who is known to be close to the military, was unwilling to join the crowd. The interesting part is that he seemed to have changed his mind by the time the march reached Islamabad. He was up there on the stage, shouting ‘go Niazi’ with the rest of them. Someone, therefore, persuaded him otherwise. Unlike the Sharifs, Bilawal Bhutto seems to have a firm hand on the tiller. PPP’s cadres came out in Lahore in reasonable numbers, but neither of the two large parties seems to be wholeheartedly committed to the enterprise.

One reason for this hesitation could be that the JUI(F) chief was playing his cards very close to his chest, leading to a distinct lack of coordination, particularly in terms of the end objectives of the march. After all, anyone with a grain of sense would know that Imran Khan is hardly going to give up the throne just because a few thousand people demand it of him. The lack of common cause seems to be on the question of ‘what next’. Gate crashing the Red Zone, as the Maulana is threatening to do, is fraught with danger. And both mainstream parties already have their leaders in jail. More likely, they may be waiting to see where the establishment’s position is on this. No jalsa, however large, will succeed unless at least a vital part of the establishment is in the picture.

Which brings us to the central question. What are the establishment’s thoughts on the future of its ‘selected’ prime minister? The portents are not good.

For one, it seems that the prime minister has become rather uncomfortably ultra-right in his outlook. Witness his outburst at the UN General Assembly, and his defense of blasphemy at that august podium. That would have made even his friends squirm. Another example is his somewhat questionable decision-making processes, which seems to rely heavily on superstition — to put it mildly. That’s also causing considerable unease, and not just inside Pakistan. Second, his anti-corruption drive, however laudable, has brought the country to a standstill. Corruption drives the wheels of governance in more than one South Asian state. Third, his threats of a possible nuclear war seem to have backfired. Neither Washington nor Beijing is likely to look kindly at a Pakistani leader who comes across as dangerously unstable. And fourth, his position on Kashmir, and the unpalatable charges of fascism against the Indian leadership may have closed all the doors to possible negotiation. An irate Delhi has now published a map showing the entire Pakistan- occupied Kashmir as its own. That’s trouble, and the Pakistani army knows it. In sum, there are a lot of people in various capitals who are pondering the future of Imran Khan Niazi, and not in a good way.

Against this background, consider the Maulana. Sure, he’s a Deobandi and made money out of the ‘jihad’ into Afghanistan like anyone else. In that role, he was well known to world leaders including in the US, not to mention their respective intelligence agencies. He was also operating cheek by jowl with the Pakistani intelligence agencies, particularly military intelligence. He comes from a well-regarded line of Islamic scholars, and yet is far from being as rabidly right-wing as some of his colleagues. He’s also long been a trusted negotiator with the Taliban, most of whom have been associated with his madrassas in the tribal areas. All in all, the perfect man to be a prime minister, as he had himself suggested to the then US Ambassador Anne Patterson. He is also at loggerheads with DG ISPR Maj Gen Ghafoor, though whether that is a bad thing or not remains an open question.

In the final analysis, much will depend on whether the Maulana will carry on with a sit-in or not. He actually doesn’t have much choice. To tamely go home after shouting and blustering a bit in Islamabad is not going to win friends and influence people. A bit more action and flurries of excitement in newsrooms may do the trick. A march into the Red Zone and subsequent clashes will certainly provide that certain political cachet. More protests and sit-ins in the future can be expected. All of that will make Rehman a serious player for the top position in the future. But the ‘future’ is light years away in political terms. The general elections are only in 2023, a period far too long for an aspiring politician. Presumably, the Maulana has something else up his capacious sleeve. Only time and Rawalpindi can tell. As the Chinese say, may we always live in interesting times.

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Updated Date: Nov 03, 2019 19:05:26 IST