(Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. He can be reached at [email protected])
The Azadi March into Islamabad led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the head of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (F), could not have come at a more inappropriate time for Imran Khan, the Pakistan Prime Minister. The Gallup International has recently conducted a survey among the people of Pakistan which shows that there are very few takers for Imran Khan’s jihadi rhetorics on Kashmir and common people are more concerned about the PTI government’s performance on economic aspects. The survey has brought to fore that 53 percent of the respondents are worried about the soaring inflation in Pakistan, 23 percent are concerned over growing unemployment, 4 percent are uncomfortable about corruption and only 8 percent are prepared to listen to Imran’s diatribe on Kashmir. At such a juncture has entered Fazlur Rehman, the JUI chief, to challenge Imran Khan and his PTI.
This is a very important time in Pakistan’s recent political history — important for not just Imran Khan and his PTI but for the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) of Nawaz Sharif. It will be too much to expect that Fazlur Rehman will be able to dethrone Imran, but he has already established himself as a key figure in Pakistan politics, more so at a time when sections of the PPP and PML(N) leadership are not very interested in taking up cudgels against Imran lest the army should become daggers drawn at them. Shahbaz Sharif of the PML(N) and Bilawal Bhutto of the PPP fall in this category. In spite of Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari shoving their respective parties towards the path of agitation chalked out by Fazlur Rehman, the participation by the two biggest political parties of Pakistan is not whole hearted. This has given Fazlur Rehman’s JUI an opportunity to fill up the vacant space in Pakistan politics.
What shape may it take really? It is difficult to predict because the Maulana is basically a temporal, rather than religious, man. His party — the JUI — is the Pakistani version of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind. Its founder was Mufti Mehmood, his father and a radical Islamic leader. The Mufti and the other Mullahs of his party were all for making Pakistan an Islamic Sharia State which however did not fructify till at least the beginning of the 1970s. However, in a way, Mufti Mehmood can be called the father of Islamic terrorism which has been blazing Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, because in 1979 he was the first religious head to issue a militant fatwa against the Soviet occupation army in Afghanistan.
Fazlur Rehman has inherited the same streak of fundamentalist politics. He was vociferous, along with his father, against the constitution of Pakistan as promulgated in 1973, because in their opinion it was not ‘sufficiently Islamic’. He and his father were again on the path of agitation when there were allegations of massive rigging against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and his PPP during the 1977 election. But the dexterity of the duo lies in the fact that they never took their fundamentalist demands too far and always temporized with ground realities.
This is where the biggest threat to Imran Khan lies. Fazlur Rehman will never take lying down the fact that he lost or was made to lose the Khyber Pakhtunkhowa, his principal base in Pakistan politics to Imran Khan and his PTI in the last general election of the country. He has several aces up his sleeves. First, more than 10,000 madrasas/seminaries in Pakistan openly profess their allegiance to him. Secondly, he has a cozy relation with the Taliban, and Mullah Omar, the late head of Taliban in Afghanistan, was known to be his disciple. Although, unlike the Jamaat-e-Islami, the JUI-F never allied itself with the US-Saudi Arabia-Pakistan nexus in waging war with the Soviet army in Afghanistan, yet it willingly provided fertile recruitment ground to the Taliban in the 1990s. No one should have any misconception about the influence that Tehreek-i-Taliban, still enjoys among the lower strata of population in Pakistan.
The situation is dicey for Imran Khan. Under his stewardship the economy of Pakistan is tottering. Rupee is plummeting and inflation has crossed 10 percent mark. Currency reserve of the country is precarious and as of now Pakistan can provide for only one month’s import bill in spite of the fact that China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have come to Pakistan’s rescue with a 9 billion dollar grant and the IMF has agreed to give 6 billion dollars as loans. Recently, Qamar Ahmed Bajwa, the army chief, met captains of business and industry to discuss the economic condition of the country where Imran Khan was not invited. Although the army later expressed support for Imran, yet there are ominous signals for the cricketer-turned-politician. There are reports that the 111 brigade of the Pakistan army, infamous for its involvements in several coups, recently went through several drills and unusual movements after leaves of all the brigade personnel were cancelled last month. This brigade was involved in two coups — that of Ayub Khan against Iskander Mirza and the one by Zia-ul-Huq against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Imran has played his hands badly. By incarcerating opposition leaders like Nawaz Sharif, Asif Ali Zardari and several others, he has created a situation where the opposition parties find compelling reasons to unite. Fazlur Rehman is past master in this game. During the time of Zia-ul-Huq, he played a leading role in giving a shape to the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) which ultimately generated groundswell of public opinions against the army dictator. Even during the last general election, he stitched together a conglomeration of religious political parties called the Muttahida Majlis Amal (MMA). That it lost in the hustings is a different matter. One should always keep in mind the long shadow of the army behind the poll result.
There is very little chance that the army or Imran Khan himself will accede to Rehman’s demand for the Prime Minister’s resignation. But there is every possibility that Fazlur Rehman will be able to channelize Pakistan’s public opinion in such a way that may lead to bigger developments in future.