THE so-called Azadi March is finally under way in Islamabad. Led by JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the protest march has already stirred the political landscape of the country. It is the third major agitation in the capital after the PTI and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan sieges. The latter two achieved little but still aggravated the chronic political instability in the country.
While a debate on the actors and influencers of the earlier agitation movements has eluded our political discourse, a new movement has emerged, which some consider to be a sequel of previous adventures — but with new faces. However, Maulana Fazlur Rehman has succeeded to a great extent in corroborating the impression that this is his own, independent movement.
No one can one deny the need and importance of political stability, especially when the country is facing a major economic challenge. But political stability cannot be manufactured artificially. Silencing the opposition or critical voices may delay the chaos, but eventually creates a void that extra-constitutional forces want to fill. A desire to eliminate political forces thus will not work in the long run.
Despite all the efforts made by the establishment to ‘manufacture’ stability and give the impression of a harmonious civil-military relationship, the performance of the PTI government remains unimpressive. Good governance could have averted the prevalent political uncertainty. Instead, the present governance record has fuelled public anger. The maulana’s Azadi March has created space for the voices of dissent, and has even got unprecedented support from liberal segments of society.
An aspect of the Azadi March is the growing anti-establishment sentiment in the new madressah generation.
Apart from the theories about the real motives of the march, and the probable support of sections of the establishment, the maulana has capitalised on some relevant factors which are the outcome of recent political developments. The first factor is the divided and under-pressure opposition, the second is the weak performance of the government, and the third constitutes the growing anti-establishment sentiments in the new madressah generation.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman is considered to be the most pragmatic political leader in the country, and like any other leader has the ability to maximise advantages for his party in unfavourable environments. Though he and Prime Minister Imran Khan have a history of confrontation, and the maulana has also declared that the last elections were rigged, he is striving to take advantage of the weakness of the opposition led by the PPP and PML-N to consolidate his own political capital.
The PML-N and the PPP, the two major opposition parties, have been under immense pressure since the takeover of the PTI government and are struggling to deal with the situation in their own ways. The opposition bloc, led by Shahbaz Sharif, is trying to defuse the pressure through non-confrontational approaches, which is a pragmatic political approach in their view. Their pragmatism has, at least, created some space for their leader to be able to lead the opposition from the front, especially when the government’s performance is not satisfactory. But neither party has gained anything from its non-confrontational approach, which has provided a perfect opportunity to the maulana. It, however, remains to be seen who will have the last laugh.
Ever since the last two general elections, the JUI-F has been building its political capital on an anti-establishment stance. Though it has not succeeded much in converting this into electoral success, it has built upon its strategy to resonate with the growing anti-establishment sentiment in madressahs. In recent years, madressahs have emerged as a major force in Pakistani politics. Their expansion and influence are increasing in the lower-income to medium-income groups, and the process is fast in small towns and the peripheries of urban centres and provinces.
The madressah generations belong to the marginalised segments of society and geographical regions. Recent studies show that their sense of grievance against an unequal distribution of resources is playing a critical role in their political awakening. Until recently, the direction of their anger largely remained sectarian-oriented, but as the state’s tolerance is decreasing and space for sectarian and extremist groups shrinking in seminaries, the madressah youth is becoming more attracted to political activism. For instance, despite the calls of prominent Deobandi religious scholars to not participate in political activities, the madressah youth are still joining the Azadi March.
The Jamaat-i-Islami also has an opportunity to cash in on the growing anger among the lower middle classes and madressah students, but the party is fast losing its strength because of its vague political policies. The JUI-F is the beneficiary of the JI’s miscalculations, apart from its own constituencies and support base, cultivated through the madressah network. Thus the JUI-F’s anti-establishment stance was to address the anger of the madressah generation, which gets a sense of purposefulness through such activities. Maulana Fazlur Rehman has also assured them that he is the true custodian of the Deoband religious legacy and that of the parent JUI’s political legacy.
He knew that he could capitalise on sub-national sentiments among Pakhtun youth in the erstwhile tribal areas of KP, as well as in Balochistan and Karachi, to drag them into the Azadi March. But it remains to be seen if he can dent ethnic nationalist movements.
It can be argued that a fertile ground already existed due to the mistakes of the establishment and the PTI government, and the maulana has just taken advantage of it. However, it is uncertain what exactly he will achieve. His political profile may increase, but only a bit, because so far Mian Nawaz Sharif is the undisputed leader representing anti-establishment sentiments. Upcoming events will reveal more, but the establishment and political forces still have a few lessons to learn from the developing scenario.
The establishment has to understand that the weak opposition cannot guarantee political stability; rather, it will create space for conservative religious parties. Political parties, particularly in the opposition, have a lot to learn from this; first and foremost, they have to review their ‘pragmatic approach’ with the focus on the public’s pulse. If they really stand for civilian and parliamentary supremacy, they have to negotiate within themselves to increase their collective strength.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, November 3rd, 2019