If there is one politician in Pakistan who can claim to have read and understood Sun Tzu, it is Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi. He laid siege to the whole country, created mayhem, mocked and threatened the mightiest of the land, won new loyal followers, proved his power and retreated to consolidate his gains without making any losses.
Like his last dharnas, Rizvi’s followers – who broke the bones of a policeman, blocked roads and torched vehicles – can go back to their homes with a sense of empowerment not available to any other political group since the demise of Altaf Hussain’s MQM. Even Altaf Hussain’s mischief was limited to parts of Karachi; Rizvi’s might extends from Khyber to Karachi.
Khadim Hussain Rizvi has made stunning gains in a short period. Only a year ago, the TLP had staged a dharna at the Faizabad intersection in Islamabad, laying siege to the capital. At that time, the ire of Khadim Hussain Rizvi was directed at the embattled federal government. Thanks to generous support from a section of Pakistan’s politicians, including Imran Khan, a section of media and not-so-unseen hands, he returned victorious after claiming the scalp of a federal minister. This time, he needed no support to turn the whole country into Faizabad.
In the meantime, the TLP has proved its popularity during the 2018 election, winning almost as many votes as polled for the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the alliance of mighty religio-political parties. We can safely assume a sharp spike in popularity for the TLP as a result of the recent protests. By signing the agreement, the state has conceded Rizvi a moral victory. He can interpret the agreement in his own terms and blame the government for duplicity and animosity to religion whenever he likes. The party has been granted impunity once again for brazen acts of violence and blatant incitement to violence.
Many of Pakistan’s religious parties and movements have been around in some form for almost a century. Most of these parties are rooted in religious movements that emerged as a reaction to the humiliation of the colonial experience. We have also seen militant religious groups that appeared when the state decided to make instrumental use of religion for foreign policy objectives. Most of these groups went rogue and turned their guns on the state.
While political parties like the JUI, JUP and Jamaat-e-Islami were formed by the humiliated religiously inclined Muslim elite, they remained firmly embedded in the system. Enjoying patronage from the state, these religious parties were never seen as a solution to Pakistan’s problems by the people. Militant groups were initially recruited from the poor students of madressahs set up by religious parties. However, militant organisations remained at the fringes of society as they lacked popular appeal amongst the masses.
The TLP is a different ball game altogether. If there is one party it resembles the most, it is the PTI. In a way, the TLP is the PTI of the poor. Like the PTI, it is a populist party that gives vent to the anger and frustrations of its followers; this anger is based in rapid social change and globalisation. The TLP provides solace by invoking the appeal of the tradition and religion while using modern technology to propagate its message.
Like the PTI, it is a 3G party that uses the power of social media to its advantage. However, unlike the PTI that mobilised the middle class, the TLP has mobilised the religiously inclined working classes. Khadim Hussain Rizvi beats Imran Khan in the naiveté of his narratives that sound quite credible to his followers. (Let’s not forget that highly-educated PTI followers believed till a couple of months ago that Imran Khan would resolve Pakistan’s economic problems by bringing $200 billion of looted wealth back to the country.)
Imran Khan’s demagoguery found ‘the other’ – the enemy – in an unseen elite that comprised a few hundred elected leaders whom he held responsible for all the woes of the country. Khadim Hussain’s ire is directed at the real social and power elite of the country, including the educated middle class. He does not even spare the pirs, custodians of shrines, who are revered by his Barelvi followers. He openly attacks them for their opulent way of life and their alliance with other sections of the elite.
In terms of ideology, the TLP appears more anarchist than the jihadis. The jihadis diverged from the Muslim consensus that only the state could wage jihad. In their opinion, since Muslim states were toothless and Muslim rulers were agents of the West, non-state religious groups could also wage jihad on their own. However, members of a group must follow the discipline of the organisation.
The TLP argues that even an individual has a right to commit an act of violence if he feels that an act of blasphemy has been committed. Such violence, according to the TLP, is religiously sanctioned and such a person cannot be held accountable by a court of law.
Rizvi has emerged at a time when the legitimacy of Pakistan’s political elite is in tatters. As a result of Imran Khan’s five-year-long unrelenting mud-slinging, political leaders, including Imran Khan, stand tarnished. All politicians are seen as corrupt by most people. In line with its own narrative, the PTI’s own failures in governance will be soon linked to the corruption of its leaders.
Pakistan’s economic problems are bound to burden the poor disproportionately. There is no political platform that can articulate and represent the interests of Pakistan’s working classes who form a large majority in the country. Rizvi at least identifies some convenient scapegoats and provides them a platform to express their anger. If not this world, his poor followers are promised tabdeeeli in the hereafter that belongs to them.
We do not know if Pakistan’s power elite has learnt any lessons and shaken its penchant for making an instrumental, tactical use of religion for internal power struggles. Without such use of the blasphemy card, the TLP may not have been able to gain prominence in the first place.
Imran Khan made an amazing speech, saying all the right things about the rule of law, law and order and responsibility of the state to guard life and property. He read the riot act to the TLP and, true to himself, took a U-turn and acted contrary to what he had proclaimed.
The TLP, like many of our other problems, is a product of our elite’s pathological, guilt-ridden focus on religion and its maverick use in the search for legitimacy – without caring to build enduring foundations of trust and service. It is about the zero-sum game that the South Asian Muslim elite has played for more than a century. We are no more on the brink. We are in a ditch already. The terrible beauty that was born on the confluence of Rawalpindi and Islamabad last year has come of age so soon.