The recent political developments in the country have once again taught us a very important lesson about the so-called religious or Islamist parties of Pakistan that they are like any other political group whose ultimate aim is to get state and governmental power, have no real ideological basis and unity among them is transitory. It seems that the alliance of religious parties the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) has once again fallen apart.
Although no formal announcement for the end of the MMA has been made by the component parties, but the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan (JI) decision to contest the approaching Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) assembly elections for 16 seats to be held in the merged districts of former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, separately and not as part of the MMA has driven the last nail in the coffin of the religious parties’ alliance. The decision of the JI to contest the KP assembly elections in the merged tribal districts on its own and the silence of the largest of the MMA parties, Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), teach us very important political lessons. First, the JI decision is completely driven by power politics. The party wants to get as many seats as possible so that it could partake in the power at the provincial level. Although the PTI has two-thirds majority in the KP assembly and it cannot be blackmailed by parties like in the past, when the JI was its coalition partner in the province from 2013-2018, but JI would settle to have the chairmanship of a few parliamentary committees. Then in order to remain relevant in the political arena the JI wants to contest elections as a separate entity because of the MMA’s extremely poor performance in the last national elections, when it faced defeats in the whole of Pakistan, as hardly a few of its candidates won. The party nearly lost its political bastions of Upper Dir and Lower Dir districts in the polls to the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) candidates.
The JUI-F, on the other hand, has also realized that its alliance with religious parties, particularly the JI, as expected could not work at all and therefore it is better that the alliance ends. In this regard a very important point regarding the JUI-F thinking must be kept in mind. The JUI-F knows that it has a strong political base in the entire length of former FATA whereas the JI does not have any strong footing in the region. Therefore, if it would contest the upcoming KP assembly elections in FATA, it would have to accommodate several candidates of JI which it does not want to do. Here again, the JUI-F is quite politically savvy because although it cannot expect to have a majority in the KP assembly but it would like to have a share in power in whatever manner it could have even by having as many members of provincial assembly as possible which at least can expect to get a share of developmental funds. This is the typical way of JUI-F politics.
Secondly, the JI unannounced withdrawal from the MMA and the JUI-F peeping mum over the development are also both driven by political expediency. The JI wants to cultivate a political base in the former FATA, which is politically quite a fertile part of the country and where the party has huge opportunities to entrench itself. This is also a compulsion of the present leadership of the JI under its head Senator Sirajul Haq as it has to extend its party base.
If today the MMA has virtually fallen apart, it is merely because of the so-called religious parties’ urge for power and associated perks and privileges and it has not nothing to do with principled politics. In fact, when the alliance was revived just before the 2018 elections it was fundamentally for the political interests of the component parties and not to serve the masses, or Muslims of Pakistan for that matter. At that time we wrote in these lines: The MMA was not revived to play a significant role in the country’s politics in future. Rather the obvious objective of forging an alliance of clerical parties was aimed at winning as many parliamentary seats in the national and provincial assemblies as possible. The greater the number of seats the alliance would have won the greater bargaining position the clerical parties would have to join coalition governments at the federal and provincial levels. As the alliance failed to win a significant number of seats it is because of which presently the religious parties have no value, or even nuisance value in the country’s politics efforts of JUI-F head Fazl notwithstanding.
Here it is important to note that the MMA as an alliance of Pakistan’s top religious parties came into existence as an electoral arrangement in the year 2002. The MMA was formed in peculiar circumstances when the United States-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization had forcibly ousted the Afghan Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the wake of Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on the American mainland on September 9, 2001. The US-NATO invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and dislodging of the Taliban government was exploited for political gains by Pakistani clerical groups. First they formed Defense of Afghanistan Council and later it was turned into an electoral alliance in the shape of the MMA. The then military regime of General Musharraf rigged the 2002 national elections in favour of the MMA and handed it around 60 National Assembly seats and a majority in the provincial assembly of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, then called the North West Frontier Province. General Musharraf helped the MMA, or clerical parties, of Pakistan win an unprecedented electoral victory so as to intimidate the US and the West that they should not force him for the revival of genuine democracy in Pakistan as this would mean that anti-US forces in the shape of MMA could sweep elections.
An important aspect of the silent end of the revived MMA is that religious parties have no respect for the sentiments of Muslims of Pakistan, who have always wanted the religious parties to unite above their petty political and sectarian interests to collectively work for the development of a Shariah-compliant governance system. However, the religious parties have never been interested in and caring for the sentiments of the Muslims of Pakistan and have always kept their trivial political and sectarian interest most sacrosanct, and only then the religion or its followers.
In the unfolding political situation in the country the so-called religious parties would continue their efforts to remain relevant on the political chessboard. However, unless the religious parties bring a fundamental transformation in their thinking and approach and start working for the masses and their issues instead of their leaders’ petty personal and sectarian interests, they would face continuous marginalization due to increasing rejection by the masses.