January issue 2013

By | Cover Story | Published 7 years ago

Why is a man, who is not even eligible to contest the general elections on account of his dual nationality, spending millions of rupees on a “mysterious hidden agenda,” which is expected to unfold in the next two weeks?

Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan took 16 years to give his “tsunami,” — the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) — actual sound and fury, evidenced at the mammoth jalsas the party held during the year.

Allama Tahirul Qadri, head of the extremely well organised religious network, the Minhaj-ul-Quran, and a veteran religious scholar, did so overnight. After six years abroad, he suddenly surfaced in Lahore with a massive jalsa at the Minar-e-Pakistan, that drew a capacity crowd — including tens of thousands of women — from all walks of life.

“If Imran’s jalsa at the Minar-e-Pakistan was seen as a tsunami, Qadri’s show at the same venue could be branded “Hurricane Qadrina,” remarked a follower of the Minhaj-ul-Quran.
While that may well be true, Qadri’s return and all the fanfare surrounding it, has spawned a slew of new conspiracy theories.

For one, it is being circulated that certain yet-to-be identified forces are trying to bring both the ‘tsunami’ and ‘Qadrina’ on the same page, and with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) openly endorsing Qadri’s avowed political mission, the three could become a formidable force. The question is, to what end?

At his Minar-e-Pakistan rally on December 23, Allama Tahirul Qadri declared that foremost on his agenda was to ensure a caretaker set-up by January 10, in consultation with the army and the judiciary. He said he would not accept any interim government agreed upon by the PPP and PML (N) that did not take other stakeholders on board. Secondly, he demanded that the caretakers should seek accountability and hold free and fair elections under the constitution. Thirdly, and perhaps more significantly, he said that if this process could not be not completed within 90 days, the constitution did not restrict prolonging the caretakers’ tenure. Qadri quoted his own interpretation of several clauses of the constitution in support of his contention.

Finally, the Allama declared that if a caretaker set-up was not announced by January 10, he would march to the capital with his followers and convert Constitution Avenue into another ‘Tahrir Square.’
And if that didn’t grab every one’s attention, MQM supremo, Altaf Hussain’s announcement that his party would join the January 14 long march to Islamabad, really got people thinking.

For many years now, the MQM has been trying to make inroads in the Punjab, but with little success. While they have managed to garner some support in the southern belt, they are still not in a position to win any national or provincial seats, unlike Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, where they have managed to secure some seats.

PAKISTAN-POLITICS-REFORMSIn Allama Qadri, the MQM has ostensibly found a strong ally in the Punjab, something they have been seeking for years, ever since the party expanded its politics beyond urban Sindh. However, it may not be that easy for the PTI chief — another potential Qadri ally — to sit alongside the MQM. Imran has consistently made it clear that his party will not forge any alliance with any components of the ruling coalition. That aside, he has stopped his party leaders from criticising Tahirul Qadri.

In Allama Qadri, the MQM has ostensibly found a strong ally in the Punjab, something they have been seeking for years, ever since the party expanded its politics beyond urban Sindh.

However, it may not be that easy for the PTI chief — another potential Qadri ally — to sit alongside the MQM. Imran has consistently made it clear that his party will not forge any alliance with any components of the ruling coalition. That aside, he has stopped his party leaders from criticising Tahirul Qadri. His official spokesperson, Shafqat Mahmood, who initially criticised Allama Qadri’s agenda and his politics, was reportedly asked to take it easy by PTI’s high command. In fact, PTI President Javed Hashmi, went on to declare that PTI and Allama Qadri shared the same agenda.

If the MQM and the PTI are, indeed, on the same page as Allama Qadri, it clearly indicates that they are not averse to the idea of the elections being postponed, though none of them have openly asked for a postponement yet.

Ostensibly Allama Qadri’s slogan, “Siyasat nahi, riyasat bachao” has other connotations as well and is not just confined to the elections. In his Lahore address, for example, he was not very harsh in his criticism of the Taliban, and, in fact, spoke of reconciliation with them.

“I am not with them on certain issues but they can close ranks with us on many other issues,” he remarked. Qadri’s conciliatory stance notwithstanding, the Taliban were unimpressed. They said the Allama was pursuing a “foreign agenda.” But the TTP reaction was not really a surprise. The religious scholar’s apparent adoption and manifestation of a modern and moderate face of Islam understandably irked the TTP. Up till now, the country’s other religious organisations, such as Sahibzada Fazal Karim’s Sunni Ittehad Council, Annas Noorani’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan and Allama Yusuf Qadri’s Sunni Tehreek, all belonging to the Barelvi school of thought, have not posed any major threat to them. They are not critical of the Taliban, and are embroiled in assorted political wranglings, thereby standing divided. The Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamiat Ulema Islam (Samiul Haq group) for example, have stayed away from the revived, Maulana Fazlur Rehman-led MMA, which could have given any religious/political group a run for its money.

So, will Allama Qadri ever manage to forge unity within the religious parties, even those belonging to the Barelvi school of thought?

For starters, he will need to clarify his agenda and his intentions before he proceeds. Interestingly, while he made assorted revolutionary demands for a change in the electoral system prior to the elections, whether he himself will be allowed to contest the elections in view of his dual nationality remains a moot point. He has served as an MNA in General Zia’s tenure and later General Musharraf’s, but in 2004, he quit his seat and went to live abroad ostensibly to continue with his religious work. If he does decide to contest the polls this time, he will have to surrender his Canadian passport, and he is cognisant of this. “Yes, the constitution prevents a candidate holding dual nationality from contesting elections,” he said.

Watershed moment: The massive turnout at Qadri's recent rally reveals his importance  as a political ally

Watershed moment: The massive turnout at Qadri’s recent rally reveals his importance as a political ally

The question then: Is Allama Qadri aspiring to the country’s centrestage? Admittedly, his rally was the biggest of any single religious party, including those of the JUI (both factions) and Jamaat-e-Islami. It was even bigger than the show of strength of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council. Qadri has certainly succeeded in passing a strong message to those in the western and Islamic world, who are thinking of backing a modern Islamic force. And the presence of a strong delegation of MQM’s top 50 leaders to Azizabad and Altaf Hussain’s earlier decision to ensure complete participation in the January 14 long march, indicates that Qadri is being taken seriously — in some quarters at least.

However, he is facing strong resistance from the PPP and PML (N), who are well aware that machinations of a third force — possibly an army-backed dispensation — could queer the pitch for the country’s mainstream political parties.
Qadri, once a close ally of Nawaz Sharif, developed serious differences with him a few years ago, and even accused Sharif of being involved in an attempt on his life — something which the PML (N) has continued to deny.

There is no doubt that the Minhaj-ul-Quran has a huge national and international network of educational institutes, but like the JUI (F) which, despite having thousands of madrassas and about two million students, could never think of winning the elections single-handedly, Qadri too has yet to be tested on the electoral front.

PAKISTAN-POLITICS-REFORMS

But his public meeting at the Minar-e-Pakistan was certainly impressive — Tahirul Qadri claimed there was a crowd of two million (Imran’s meeting drew close to one million, according to PTI estimates) and most agreed that it was a successful show of strength by a man who has only just returned from Canada.

The rally was marked by the presence of a large number of women — estimated to be around 10,000 — many wearing the veil or chaddar. Several of them were actually seen waiting for their leader at the Minar-e-Pakistan one day earlier than the rally, and that too, in the freezing cold. This kind of commitment apart, according to Qadri, his supporters are willing to donate as much as 1,000 Euros for special events, such as this December rally.

Tahirul Qadri, who quit mainstream politics after resigning his seat in 2004, did not return to play any role during the massive lawyer’s movement of 2007, or in the 2008 elections following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. So the question uppermost in people’s mind is, why now? Why did he not reveal this agenda in 2008? Why did he not demand a similar caretaker government in the last elections? Where do the MQM and the PTI figure in his, or the hidden hand’s, scheme of things? And, above all, who is calling the shots in this mysterious game?

It is very unlikely that the government will accept his demand for a caretaker government by January 10. Does that mean the country will see an action replay of the March 16, 2009 long march in support of the judiciary?

Or will the lead players, mainly the PPP and the PML, iron out their differences to jointly dictate the country’s plan of action and determine the future politics of Pakistan?