Originally Published 2004-02-27 11:08:57 Published on Feb 27, 2004
The strong showing of the six religious party¿s alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in the October 2002 general elections in Pakistan has led to apprehensions among the tribe of Pakistan watchers worldwide about the inexorable slide of a nuclear-armed Pakistan towards ¿talibanisation¿.
The MMA and its Future
The strong showing of the six religious party's alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) in the October 2002 general elections in Pakistan has led to apprehensions among the tribe of Pakistan watchers worldwide about the inexorable slide of a nuclear-armed Pakistan towards 'talibanisation'. While some amount of apprehension is justified, much of the fear over the rise of the MMA is based on faulty analysis, wrong information, self-serving conjectures and a stereotyping of political Islam. To the extent that in the run-up to the elections and even later, the constituents of MMA indulged in fiery anti-Western, anti-American and pro-jihad rhetoric, some of the apprehensions are natural. Moreover, the association of the constituents of MMA with the jihadi and other radical Islamic groups have also created an extremely negative impression about this alliance. But unless we sift the rhetoric from the practise and reality, it is not possible to make an objective analysis of the phenomenon that the MMA symbolises.

The religious parties comprising the MMA have been part of Pakistan's political landscape ever since that country came into existence. Contrary to popular and populist belief, the MMA parties were not part of some lunatic fringe; rather they were part of the political mainstream. That their support base (measured in terms of votes polled by them in successive elections (!) in Pakistan) was limited, did not mean that they did not matter in Pakistan's politics. In fact, the religio-political parties in Pakistan have always exercised an influence far in excess of the votes they have polled. In a sense, the religious parties in Pakistan were like the left parties in India: neither enjoyed much public support but both exercised far greater influence in the political discourse in each country than their electoral performance suggested. Also, like the left parties in India, the religious parties have an antediluvian political and economic philosophy. They both draw inspiration and ideology from texts written in a different time and era and both try to impose a system which has either never existed or existed in an entirely different setting and in a different epoch. Another remarkable similarity between the Indian left and the Pakistani religious right is that they are a sort of buffer between the extremist and lunatic fringes on the left (Naxalites) in India and right (jihadis) in Pakistan. And this, in spite the fact that the leftists in India and the religious parties in Pakistan have their sympathy, even close linkages, with the lunatic fringe groups.

But this is where the comparison ends. While the left parties in India are in their death throes and an anachronism, the MMA is poised to be the political force of the future in Pakistan. Ever since the religious parties came together on a common platform under the umbrella of Afghan Defence Council in January 2001, which later transformed into the MMA, they have been setting the political agenda in Pakistan. Other mainstream political parties, for a variety of reasons, have been reduced to reacting to the MMA. Today, the MMA is seen as a viable political alternative in Pakistan and a government in the waiting. This has helped the MMA widen its support base and influence and make inroads into areas like Punjab and Sindh where hitherto fore the religious parties had a marginal presence. The MMA as also managed to recover political ground in Karachi, where it has successfully managed to challenge the MQM's political monopoly.

This is a tectonic shift in Pakistani politics. Since the late 1960's, when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto emerged on the political scene in Pakistan, politics in that country was polarised on pro and anti Bhutto lines. This was, in a sense, part of the classic debate of that era when political debate was between the Left and the Right.

But since the last decade of the last millennium, political debate around the world has centred on civilizational and religious issues with conservatism and orthodoxy occupying political centre stage. In that sense, the emergence of the MMA is in keeping with a global trend. The MMA phenomenon is both a reaction to the globalisation drive as well as a desire of the people to rediscover their religio-civilizational moorings. The fact remains that politics in Pakistan has taken a rightward shift and the conservative and orthodox parties are gaining at the expense of a namby-pamby liberal and moderate party like PPP. For the first time since the late 1960's politics is no longer polarised along pro and anti Bhutto lines; rather Bhuttoism is all but dead in Pakistan. Politics in Pakistan today is polarised along soft and hard Islam and Bhuttoism is fast being cast to the fringe of politics, especially in the heartland of Pakistani, Punjab. The other political parties in Pakistan have simply not been able to respond in a befitting manner to the changes that have been sweeping the world and their own country.

Of course, many would argue that the rise of the MMA is the logical result of the Islamisation drive of the last Pakistani military dictator, Gen. Ziaul Haque and the policies pursued by Pakistan's military-bureaucratic establishment since the early 1980's when Jihad and Islam were used for domestic politics and as instruments for achieving foreign policy objectives. Many Pakistani political commentators also believe that the MMA's astounding performance in the 2002 elections was the result of the military regime leaning in its favour. While other political parties were not allowed to hold public meetings or demonstrations, no such restriction was imposed on the religious parties. The leaders of the main opposition parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, were forced into exile and this robbed these parties of their main vote getters. A number of other senior leaders were imprisoned and thrown out of the electoral process. The graduation bar imposed on candidates also resulted in a lot of senior politicians being disqualified from the elections. On the other hand, the government accepted the degrees given by madrasas as equivalent to a graduation degree. Senior MMA leaders who were in jail for a variety of acts of omission and commission had their cases withdrawn while politicians from PPP and PML(Nawaz) found themselves battling trumped up charges. All sorts of pressure was used on politicians belong to the PPP and PML (N) before and after the polls to defect from their parent parties. All this is said to have aided the MMA tremendously during the elections. It is also said that the local administration tilted in MMA's favour during the polls because a strong showing by the MMA could then be used by the military dictator to wave a red flag at the Americans and twist their arm in his support.

While a lot of this is true, it is nevertheless only a partial explanation of the phenomenon that the MMA represents. Pakistan's religio-political parties, even while partaking in the largess bestowed on them by the establishment, never really compromised on their own political agenda of acquiring political power. Just as the state used them for its domestic and foreign policy agenda, they used the state to expand their influence and their base. When it suited their political interests, they allied with the state and when their political interests were served by challenging the state, they pretended to confront it, something which Pakistani observers call Noora Khusti (shadow boxing). All the time, these religio-political parties kept their political interests uppermost. What most people often forget is that the Mullahs in MMA are first and foremost politicians, and very shrewd and astute politicians at that. Their politics is power, their tool is access to people through Islam. In that sense they are Islamic politicians. What they preach is dogmatic; what they practise is pragmatic. One could argue with their brand of politics and their worldview, but that should not detract one from the fact that they have a point of view which other political parties are finding difficult to counter effectively.

While the MMA represents a social phenomenon, the alliance had other things going for it in the last elections. Political mobilisation around the world is done broadly around three or four platforms. These are ethnicity, class and religion and sometimes anti-establishment policies. The MMA arrogated all these platforms in the last elections. By their very nature, the constituents of the MMA have always had a monopoly over religion. No other party could ever compete with them as far as using religion as a tool for political mobilisation is concerned. What is more, the alliance subsumed within it all the different sects - the Deobandis were represented by the two factions Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam (the larger faction led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman and the smaller faction led by Maulana Sami-ul-Haq), the Barelvis were represented by the Jamaat Ulema-e-Pakistan, the Shias were represented by the Tehrik-i-Islami, the Ahle Hadith by Markazi Jamaat Ahle Hadith and the Jamaat Islami representing adherents to the Jamaat's non-sectarian approach.

It is however important to remember that this was not the first time that the religious parties had entered into an alliance to fight elections. In almost all the elections before 2002, the religious parties have entered into alliances. But never before did they manage to get the kind of result they saw in the 2002 polls. One reason for this was that this was the first time that all the religious parties fought under a common election symbol. Also, their alliance this time was more broad-based than earlier. Most important, the MMA was not seen as a tactical alliance, entered into only for the purpose of elections. The religious parties in fact worked hard to place the alliance on a more stable and solid footing so that they could emerge as a possible alternative in Pakistan.

But the organisation and composition of the MMA and use of religion as a mobilising factor was only one of the reasons for their success. The MMA also had the advantage of class identification with them. Most of the mullahs belong to lower or lower-middle class and as such the common man is able to identify with them. Since most of the mullahs live in the local mosque, they were easily approachable by the people. Moreover, the network of madrasas and mosques from where the MMA operates provided it not only with a committed cadre but also a captive audience.

The other thing which went in favour of the MMA was that they exploited the ethnic factor to the hilt. In the areas where the MMA swept the elections, the NWFP, Tribal Areas and the Pashtun belt of Baluchistan, Pashtun nationalism played a major factor. Earlier, Pashtun nationalism was exploited by nationalist parties like the ANP in NWFP and the PKMAP in Baluchistan. But the ambiguous position taken by these parties on the invasion of Afghanistan by the Americans and the ouster of the predominantly Pashtun Taliban regime, lost them the ethnic Pashtun vote. The MMA on the other hand exploited the Pashtun sentiment to the hilt by raving and ranting against the Americans and reaped the benefit of this in the polls.

Finally, one major factor that went in favour of the MMA was the anti-establishment position it appeared to espouse. In Pakistan anti-establishment is generally a popular political stance and the MMA's strong opposition to the military regimes foreign, economic and domestic policies gained support for it.

What are the future prospects for the MMA? Political crystal ball-gazing is almost always a hazardous exercise, especially in a country as complex as Pakistan. But if the past and present are any indication, the MMA is emerging as a real political alternative in Pakistan. This is not to say that the MMA's ascent to power in Islamabad is going to be a piece of cake. There are many obstacles and pitfalls that the MMA will have to negotiate before it can walk into the corridors of power in Islamabad.

The first big obstacle that the MMA will have to overcome is the resistance to its political agenda by an influential section of the Pakistani polity and society. Up until now, the Pakistani elite and establishment has cynically exploited the religious parties in the belief that these parties pose no real danger to their position. But the 2002 election has changed all that. The Pakistani elite is now apprehensive of the MMA and will exert to prevent it from coming to power. While there is a section of the elite and the establishment that supports the MMA, an equally large and perhaps more influential section views the MMA as a threat to its privileged existence and will try its best to block the MMA from coming into power. This section feels that the MMA's worldview and its political, economic and foreign policy orientation will destroy Pakistan and isolate it in the international community.

The second big obstacle in the MMA's path is the very deep differences within its own ranks. While the fact that the MMA represents all the major Islamic sects is its strength, this very same factor is also its big weakness. There are serious theological and doctrinal differences between the different sects of Islam. For an alliance that wants to Islamise Pakistan, the big problem will be the interpretation of Islam that will be imposed on the country. The Shias will not accept the Sunni version of an Islamic state. Similarly, the majority Sunni sect, Barelvis, will not take kindly to the imposition of the Deobandi version of Islam in the country. The Ahle Hadith is uncomfortable with every other version of Islam. While MMA leaders say that the Council of Islamic Ideology will decide on these issues, this is easier said than done. The CII has issued some of the most bizarre judgements in recent years and if these are ever accepted it will lead to utter chaos in the country. As of now, the MMA has made a lot of noise about Islamising Pakistan, but there is really no coherent and systematic scheme it has unveiled that explains what exactly Islamisation means in substantive terms. This is a weakness that MMA's rivals are seeking to exploit. Parties like the ANP and others taunt the MMA to impose Islam in NWFP where the MMA is running the provincial government. They also point at the hypocrisy of the MMA leadership which keeps talking of Islamisation but does little to convert their fiery words into actions. Islamisation is therefore a serious dilemma that confronts the MMA. Unless the MMA can get its act together on the issue of Islamisation, it will expose itself before the public of not being serious about Islamisation. But given the doctrinal and theological differences between the different sects, it is practically impossible to reach a universally acceptable version of an Islamic state. And imposing a particular version of Islam will rip apart the MMA coalition.

Apart from theological and doctrinal differences, there are serious political differences and personality clashes within the alliance. For instance, Maulana Samiul Haq and Maulana Fazlur Rahman have a serious personality clash. Samiul Haq has all but walked out of the alliance, charging the JUI(f) and the Jamaat Islami (the two biggest components of the MMA) with ignoring the smaller alliance partners. The MJAH leader Sajid Mir has been traditionally a close ally of Nawaz Sharif and is averse to any deal with the Musharraf regime. After the MMA entered into a constitutional deal with the regime, Sajid Mir has been sulking. How long he stays within the MMA is now a matter of speculation.

The political differences between the alliance partners are no less. The JUI (F) and JI don't see eye to eye on a number of political issues. While the JUI(F) is keen on improving relations with India and not averse to winding down the jihad in Kashmir, the JI is vehemently opposed to any rapprochement with India unless the Kashmir issue is settled. The JI is also opposed to ending the jihad in Kashmir.

Despite the fact that both the Jamaat and the JUI have deep linkages with the jihadi groups - the Deobandi jihadi groups have all emerged from madrasas run by the JUI, while organisations like Hizbul Mujahedin and Al Badr have emerged from the Jamaat - the Jamaat is far more hard line on Kashmir than the JUI. One reason for this could be that the Jamaat has made deep inroads into the establishment and perhaps its hard line stance is a reflection of the anger within a section of the establishment over the change in policy towards Kashmir. At least this is what senior JUI leaders' suspect and they say that if the Jamaat was to get the signal from the right quarters it would even change its position on issues like Kashmir. The kind of statements that the Jamaat chief Qazi Husain Ahmed has made against Musharraf would not have been possible without the backing of some powerful sections in the establishment. JUI leaders say that while they know of the Jamaat's linkages within the establishment yet they feel that for reasons of political expediency and survival and because for the first time since 1977 the Jamaat feels it has a chance to grab power through an election provided it sticks in MMA, the JUI has been able to temper the Jamaat's position of many issues, even Kashmir. On the issue of Kashmir, matters have come to a breaking point more than once between the JUI(F) and the JI. That ties between these two biggest components of the MMA haven't broken down yet is a the result of the pragmatism of the leadership of the two parties as well as the longer term interest that will be served by sticking together.

Another issue on which JUI(F) and JI have had serious differences is on whether or not to enter into a deal with the Musharraf regime on the LFO issue. While the JI wanted to confront the regime, the JUI was in favour of striking a deal. The reason for this was simple. The JUI had a stake in the system, with a government in NWFP and sharing power in Baluchistan. Since the JUI support base is basically centred in these two provinces, the JUI didn't want to do anything that would compromise its interests in NWFP and Baluchistan. Had there been a confrontation, the JUI would lose both these governments. Moreover the JUI had the experience of the MRD agitation in 1984 when the political parties tried to confront the martial law regime of Gen. Ziaul Haque. The JUI knew that confrontation would not really get it what a compromise could. So keeping past experience and current interests in mind, the JUI wanted to strike a deal at the most favourable terms possible. The JUI believed that such a deal would get it the best of both worlds: it would save its governments in the two provinces that mattered most to it and would gain influence at the centre; at the same time, it would continue to occupy opposition space.

The JI however was opposed to any deal with the Musharraf regime and believed that its political interests as that of the alliance would be better served by confronting the government. The Jamaat's reasons were quite simple. Unlike the JUI, the Jamaat had collaborated with the last military government. And for this it had to pay a steep political price. At the time of the Nizam-e-Mustafa movement against Bhutto in 1977, the Jamaat had raised its political profile to an extent that just like the MMA today, the Jamaat was seen as having a realistic shot at coming into power in the late 1970's. But by collaborating with Gen. Zia, the Jamaat lost its lustre and was soon relegated to the backwaters of Pakistani politics. Like the MMA today, the Jamaat too had tried to ride in two boats: one section of the Jamaat participated in the government while the other tried to play the role of opposition. Keeping past experience in mind, the Jamaat did not want to sign any deal with Musharraf.

There was yet another factor weighing on the Jamaat leaderships mind. The Jamaat has been extending its political influence in the heartland of Pakistani politics- Punjab. The Jamaat felt that if the MMA contributed to the collapse of the system imposed by Musharraf on the country and forced a new election, it would make substantial gains in the Punjab. As it is the MMA can hardly better its performance in NWFP, tribal areas and Baluchistan. So if now the MMA wanted to win a majority, it would have to win seats in the Punjab. And this was not possible if the MMA was seen to be riding two boats: collaborating with the military regime on the constitutional question and at the same time occupying opposition space.

Despite their competing political interests and the differences on issues like Kashmir, MMA has managed to stick together and reached a compromise within the alliance on these issues. As a result of this, the alliance entered into a dialogue with the regime and made a pragmatic deal on the LFO which in turn resulted in the 17th Amendment to the constitution. The terms of the deal were such that both the MMA and the regime had to make certain compromises on their stated positions. Thus, while Musharraf agreed to quit as army chief within one year and withdrew the extension given to the judiciary, the MMA compromised on the infamous article 58(2)(b). In itself, the deal is an eloquent statement on the pragmatism of the mullahs and at least in the short term has strengthened the MMA's position, which enjoys the advantages of proximity to power while at the same time occupying the opposition space.

But this very same deal is also a big obstacle in the path of the MMA's ascent to power. The deal with Musharraf has dented the image of the MMA as an anti-establishment and anti-status quo force. The general impression in the public mind is that the MMA's anti-government stance is mere political posturing and that in fact the MMA is acting like the 'B' team of the Pakistan army. Many of the people who were looking upon the MMA to take on the military establishment for its 'un-Islamic, anti-Islam and pro-West' policies see the MMA as being no better than the old style politicians. The lack of response to the nationwide strike call on 6th February against the action being taken against nuclear scientists is one indication of the problems MMA will have in walking tightrope between opposition politics and entering into cosy deals with the same military regime. But MMA leaders believe that they will be able to use their considerable political skills to surmount this obstacle. This same political skill is being brought to bear as far as the extremist elements within the religious parties and their off-shoots are concerned, whereby the MMA leaders are making efforts to appear to be reasonable people to rest of the world while keeping their extremist constituency in tact.

There are two more obstacles in the path of the MMA ascent to power. The MMA faces a challenge from the ethnic nationalist parties. While these parties suffered a serious setback in the 2002 elections, there are signs of their re-grouping to challenge the MMA. In the Frontier, the ANP is queering the pitch for the MMA by needling it on the question of the Islamisation. In addition, the ethnic nationalists have taken an unambiguous position in opposing the Pakistani establishment and in demanding revolutionary changes in the federal constitution. If the nationalist forces manage to get their act together, then either alone or in alliance with the other mainstream parties, they will be able to make a serious dent in the MMA's support base.

The final obstacle before the MMA is its ability or inability to deliver on the promises it made to the people, especially in the provinces where it is in government. Despite the religious rhetoric and ethnic and class identification, the people ultimately have no use for a government that cannot address the day to day problems of education, sanitation, roads, water, electricity, employment etc. unless the political and international situation suffers another great shock like 9/11, the B-S-P factor will certainly operate against the MMA in the next election. The reason is that so far the MMA government, especially in NWFP, has wasted its energies on symbolic issues like Shariat bill, Hisbah bill, blackening bill-boards with female models, banning liquor and gambling etc. Very little work has been done to address the basic concerns of the people. This then could be the biggest factor working against the MMA in the next elections.

Finally, there is the international factor which the MMA will find very difficult to overcome. The international climate is very hostile to the ascent of the MMA to power. The MMA leadership is aware that notwithstanding all its fiery anti-American and anti-western rhetoric, it needs to address international concerns about the alliance. That is the reason why one of the first things that the MMA did after the October 2002 results was to hold a meeting with the ambassadors of all important countries where it assured them of its moderation. The visit to India of the JUI leader and secretary general of the MMA, Maulana Fazlur Rahman also sent a strong signal to the international community that if the MMA could do business with India, there is no reason why it cannot do business with the West. But while the MMA is giving an impression of moderation to the world, it would certainly resist following American diktats in as abject a manner as has been done by the Musharraf regime. This, coupled with the rabid anti-Americanism in MMA circles, disqualifies the alliance in American and Western eyes. The Americans will therefore use all their influence to prevent the MMA ever taking power in Islamabad. This factor is perhaps the most insurmountable obstacle before the MMA.

Sushant Sareen Executive Editor, POT Analyses & News Service and Director, Pakistan Centre, Observer Research Foundation

* Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Observer Research Foundation.
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