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Islamist Outfits in South Asia Are Not Built as Electoral Parties

By Nadeem F. Paracha

30 Aug 2020

The combined share of votes for religio-political parties in the 2018 elections in Pakistan was 9.58 percent. This percentage is slightly lower than what it was in the 2013 elections, and certainly lower than the 11 percent of the total votes that the ‘religious’ parties received in the 2002 election. The 2002 tally still stands to be the highest the Islamist parties have ever received in elections in Pakistan.


Illustration by Abro


In an analysis of the 2018 elections, Indian author Tilak Devasher and researcher Shruti Punia, assessed the performance of religio-political parties in the elections as weak because, this time, there were a lot more Islamist parties competing in the Pakistani elections. Apart from the established parties, two new religio-political outfits emerged to compete in the polls: The Milli Muslim League (MML) and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). According to Devasher and Punia, the entry of the last two into electoral politics was encouraged by the ‘establishment’ as a way to usurp the ‘religious vote’ of the centre-right PML-N so that Imran Khan’s centre-right PTI could benefit. None of the new religio-political parties could win any significant number of seats, but that was never the ‘plan.’

Most Pakistani analysts agree. Whereas the MML could not perform in the manner in which some expected it to, the radical Barelvi TLP not only succeeded in largely usurping PML-N’s Barelvi vote, but also gobbled up the secular MQM’s lower-middle-class Barelvi votes in Karachi. This certainly aided PTI in challenging the PML-N in Punjab and the MQM in Karachi.

Historically, Islamist outfits in South Asia are not built as electoral parties. They emerge as evangelical groups or residues of movements. But even when they do convert into electoral outfits, they struggle to exhibit any significant traction for the voters. Apart from the fact that they are usually evangelical groups which take time to evolve an electoral character, another reason that they struggle to do well in elections is because of the manner in which the non-religion-based mainstream parties in Pakistan pragmatically co-opt certain causes and the rhetoric championed by the ‘religious’ outfits.

Another factor is that religio-political parties are closely associated with one Islamic sect/sub-sect or the other. This limits their appeal to voters from other denominations. Some are even understood to have developed a sect of their own, as the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) was once accused of doing. According to the late sociologist Hamza Alavi, Islamist groups (in South Asia) developing political interests is a 20th century phenomenon rooted in the Khilafat Movement (1919-1924). The political anthropologist Irfan Ahmad agrees but adds that, when the European theory of the state began to attract centrist and leftist groups in South Asia in the early 20th century, Islamist groups too began to be attracted by it and therefore started to theorise the possibility of creating an ‘Islamic state.’

But since most of these Islamist groups had emerged as evangelical outfits that had then plunged into agitational politics, they could not find the means or the need to devise any electoral tools to achieve such a state. They often saw electoral politics as contrary to their Islamist dispositions. That’s why the demand for a Muslim-majority state (Pakistan) arose from a centrist and quasi-secular All India Muslim League (AIML).

What’s more, almost all major Islamist parties opposed this demand on one pretext or the other. But they could not neutralise AIML’s plans because, by the 1940s, it had not only become an experienced electoral entity, but it was also able to juxtapose its ‘modernist’ Muslim nationalism with rhetoric from their Islamist opponents. These opponents had no plan to stall the League through electoral means.

The Islamist parties remained in an electoral limbo during the first 20 years of Pakistan. However, they did retain their evangelical and agitational disposition, in an attempt to influence the ideological character of the new country. But even during the years of indirect elections (1957-58), and hybrid democracy (1962-69), the religio-political parties could not devise any effective electoral tools. They largely failed to send members to the country’s first two constituent assemblies, and the two assemblies that came into being during the Ayub Khan dictatorship.

Yet, just before the country’s first direct elections in 1970, parties such as JI were claiming that they would sweep the polls. The opposite happened. The religio-political parties could not bag more than 4 percent of the total vote and were routed by secular parties, most of whose senior members had been involved in electoral politics since the 1950s.

In an August 15, 2016 essay in the Asian Journal of Political Science, the research scholar Mudasir Nazar writes that, from 1947 till 1972, Islamist parties operated from outside the assemblies and, therefore, had no significant influence on the policy-making process, other than through the threat to agitate. But despite the fact that just 18 members from three religio-political parties managed to enter the parliament that came into being in 1972, this was actually the first time so many members from Islamist outfits had become parliamentarians.

Their new-found romance with electoral politics was no match, however, against the experience of mainstream electoral parties. That’s why, in 1974 and then again in 1977, Islamist parties once again banked on their penchant for agitational politics to undermine a regime. They initially welcomed Gen Ziaul Haq’s reactionary military coup in 1977. With the side-lining of some major parties during this period, the religio-political parties were given ample space to develop their electoral skills and expand their constituencies. Even separate electorates were introduced to favour the Islamist parties. But the idea, on the part of the military regime, was to manoeuvre these parties in a manner that would help the dictatorship sustain itself and ward off challenges posed to it by the opposition parties.

Apart from squabbling among themselves over sectarian and theological issues, most of the religio-political parties became willing tools of the ‘establishment’, without whose ‘backing’ they believed they could not become effective electoral entities. In the 1990s, less overtly religious centre-right parties, such as the PML-N, continued to co-opt religious rhetoric and the ‘programmes’ of the Islamist parties while (when in government) bouncing between eliminating newer sectarian groups or allying with them during elections.

However, at the turn of the century, the self-proclaimed ‘enlightened moderate’ Gen Musharraf decided to aggressively sideline the PML-N and the PPP during the 2002 elections, by creating the conditions required for the religio-political parties to win in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (then NWFP). This was when these parties bagged 11 percent of the total vote. But this could not halt the return of the PPP and the PML-N after the 2008 elections.

In the eyes of the establishment, the mutable utility of the old religio-political parties has been exhausted. With growing mistrust between the PML-N/PPP and the establishment, the latter ‘allowed’ the growth of new religion-based groups such as the TLP and the MML. In an environment where the state was at war with religious militancy and with the sword of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) still hanging over the country’s head, the idea was to quietly nurture new religious groups, not to help them win, but to aid the ‘pro-establishment’ PTI by way of scattering PML-N’s religious vote-bank and constituency.

The fate of the religio-political parties in electoral politics is thus likely to continue being dependent on their individual utility to the establishment.


Source: The Dawn, Pakistan


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