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Crystallisation of the Electoral Power of the Barelvi School of Thought in Pakistan

By Syed Talat Hussain

August 6, 2018

The divisive and badly controversial polls 2018 have thrown up a plethora of political trends that will shape the national landscape for decades ahead. Among them the more striking one includes the crystallisation of the electoral power of the Barelvi school of thought in the shape of the remarkable performance of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (previously known as the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasul Allah).

The party has won just two provincial assembly seats. However, the truly exceptional aspect of this party (formally registered as TLP by the Election Commission and allowed to contest with the party symbol of a crane) has been its candidates and their vigorous modern campaigns that included all modern platforms that any party anywhere in the world in this day and age uses for wider reach.

In the National Assembly contest, the TLP fielded no less than 182 candidates out of 270 constituencies. On provincial assembly seats across Pakistan, it had 388 ticket holders. This feat alone is worthy of analysis. This is the first time in Pakistan’s electoral history that an outfit formed only two and a half years ago purely for raising religious issues centring on one of the cardinal principles of the Islamic faith – the finality of the last Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – has shown this type of human resource at its command, representing a vast lay of a complex political land. No other party has deployed such a resource before.

All traditional religo-political parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and the Jamiat Ulema-e- Pakistan – despite their central role in national politics, in some cases dating back to the pre-Partition days – have yet to exhibit this prowess. Even when these parties formed alliances and banded together like the present Mutahidda Majlis-e-Amal or even the lacklustre Pakistan Islamic Front in the 1993 elections, they remained confined to selected constituencies and strongholds and never attempted to make a mark across the country. By fielding such a large number of candidates, the TLP has scored an important first.

More to the point, much of this campaign has been heavily funded and ran parallel to – if not ahead of – every other contestant in the given areas. From opening campaign offices to holding small corner meetings to designing messages, there was nothing that others did which was not matched by the TLP. This is exceptional because all campaigns are outcomes of expenditure. For a party whose head Khadim Hussain Rizvi has no known source of income, and which relies on candidates who while well-off in some cases are not from the loaded class of the elite of Pakistan, the spending spree by the TLP in this election raises interesting points.

One explanation is the ‘funding for noble cause factor.’ Relying on the Barelvi network of mosques and backed by the largest following in the country for this doctrinal orientation, the party has been able to raise money in the name of defending the finality of the Prophethood (pbuh) without any problem. From the seths in Karachi to the tea-seller in Quetta, everyone chipped in. Hands went into pockets with ease and came up with endless contributions that fed TLP campaigns. In fact, the mosque network became the largest campaign runner for the TLP. It not only raised money but also demolished the credentials of opponents whom it described as borderline cases of being ‘wajibul qatl’ (deserving of death) for representing those who had allegedly fiddled with the public oath to elected office, seemingly to the benefit of Ahmadis.

Many opposing contestants were marked from the pulpit as those who had weak faith in the finality of the Prophet (pbuh), and who were friends of Ahmadis and thus deserved to be discarded. Many ticket holders who left the PML-N or gave up their tickets have personally told me that they had to do it because, among other pressures, the push to distance themselves from the N-League came essentially from the local mosque. “They would send groups after every prayer to my house and tell me that I would rot in hell for carrying the ticket of a party that tried to change the law in favour of the Ahmadis,”said one. He was petrified. He first stopped campaigning and then finally let go of the ticket. Eventually, he opted for the ‘jeep’ as an election symbol.

The other remarkable aspect of the arrival of the TLP on the political scene is its impact on the margins of winning and losing. On every third National Assembly seat and on every seventh provincial assembly seat in Punjab, the TLP’s vote-gathering range – from 2000 to 620,000 – defined who would win and who would lose. Most of the losses in this case happened to be to opponents of the PTI but in some instances PTI candidates also lost due to the TLP factor. Related to this is the feature of the TLP showing voter presence in almost every constituency. That explains the rather impressive vote bank of the TLP – almost 2.2 million, just 0.3 million short of the MMA.

The type of organisation skills and support network the TLP created or has relied upon in these elections is long-lasting and is an effective ladder to scale the heights of political power in the coming years. The more so since it is was not just Barevli mosque and funding that helped the party finance its campaign but the vast network of shrines (nearly 600 in Punjab alone) that backed its candidates. Now with Imran Khan, a new devotee of Sufi spirituality in power at the centre, and the likes of Shah Mehmood Qureishi wielding enormous influence in Punjab, the overall socio-political and administrative environment for the TLP to build on its polls achievements will be totally conducive. The electoral empowerment of the TLP also elevates the Barelvis to the forefront of national political scene. Their superior numbers as adherents of their school of thought are now out there in the shape of votes, constituencies, seats and the ability to influence electoral outcomes.

Associated with this is the new sense of command that their leadership feel over the lives of the power elite of Pakistan. For instance, the language that Khadim Hussain Rizvi has used about the sitting chief justice and the judiciary at large, and which is available all over social media (no contempt notice will be issued on that, that’s for sure), is not just bravado by an enthused head of an organisation playing to the gallery. It shows that the TLP and its adherents now feel that they can take over from their doctrinal opponents (the Deobandis, the Ahl-e-Hadith and the Salafis) the role of deciding the religious credentials of fellows of faith.

In fact, their power goes beyond deciding who is and is not a good Muslim: they can simply decide who is not a Muslim and then hang the threat of death upon any head anytime. This power is so much wider than the power to tell others about the need to have a beard of a specific length or to change appearance and social habits to become a good Muslim – something that most Deobandi and Salafi religious police do.

With so much at their command, the TLP looks set to become a long-term player in national politics – deciding not just electoral results but also becoming a vocal lobby with demonstrated street power on any cause it may deem worthy of being taken up. It has also sensed how weak the legal and administrative structure is against street agitation carried out in the name of the fundamental tenets of Islam.

They now know how easy it is to endorse or take away someone’s title as a Muslim and make him or her face the consequences without any protection from the state. But the most important implication of the emergence of the TLP is the possibility of the opposing doctrinal forces (whose more established version has been decimated in the election in the shape of the JUI’s rout) counteracting to stake their claim in politics. It is unlikely that they will sit idly and watch their doctrinal competitors take the stage of national politics and informal decision-making on crucial issues while their role withers away.

Also bear in mind that the doctrinal differences between these two groups have a regional dimension – with Iran on one side and the Arab world led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. If one group has arrived, as the TLP certainly has, the other can’t be far behind.

Syed Talat Hussain is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.