Pakistan Politics’ ‘Irritating Uncle’: How Fazlur Rehman’s CV Is Better Than Most Politicians
We all know that there is good and bad in all walks of life. However, we as people employ oblique means of survival, live at the expense of others, and care the least for our fellow citizens. Under these circumstances, how can we complain about being misguided, blinded, and divided by phoney leaders who are corrupt, dishonest and unethical?
If the policies in a country are constantly changing, sometimes even hourly, you must know that you are being governed by ignorant and incompetent. We were not expecting a Lincoln or Churchill to rule us but the Prime Minister did brag about his ability to solve problems, put to rest our anxieties, and satisfy every desire we could imagine. We were, therefore, hoping to join him for rebuilding the nation where all would have room to dream and grow. We never sought to destroy our faith in democracy, independent media, and dispassionate judiciary. We did not expect exploitation of the symbols of patriotism either; a conscious effort to turn us against one another.
It is also true that it is hard to run a country where virtue has become vice and vice is considered a virtue. One cannot imagine living such a country where the plunderers of yesterday suddenly assume they have undergone a Pauline conversion because they are in opposition. They are now catering to our prejudices by suggesting that we treat people outside our ethnicity, faith or party as unworthy of dignity and respect. They want to nurture our anger toward those who they believe have done them wrong and are threatening violence to blow them away. They want revenge by encouraging us to have contempt for our governing institutions and the electoral process. They are also willing to further the malign interests of anyone for their own gain.
I am not sure about you but I have run out of what adjective can be used for our nation who is consistently hoodwinked and recurrently betrayed by deceitful politicians, both civilian and military. It is often said that an artful dodger and an unsophisticated people are made for each other. When these two come together in an election or a selection scenario, a huge tragedy unfolds where the artful-dodger comes into power. From there onwards, financiers see such politicians as bankable assets and politicians make laws to get a seat at the table sponsored by the highest bidder. Not all of them are on the take, but they are always ready for the job interview. Since people do not refuse their bad governments, they also deserve them all the way.
It is a cliché that forcible intercourse with one individual is called rape and raping millions of individuals at a time is sometimes called politics. Common people, everywhere in the world, have little interest in the day to day mechanics of politics and simply presume that devious politicians are perhaps the lowest form of existence on earth. If there is a contest in Pakistan as to who is the lowest form among such politicians; Fazlur Rehman would get the maximum votes without any doubt. This is because he is perceived to be the living embodiment of the unfortunate allegory, “Help yourself with the state! It’s all on democracy!”. Under these circumstances, the rest of us have often thought about the chestnut that instead of such politicians, let the monkeys govern the country called the Land of the Pure; at least they will steal only the bananas.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman has put together an alliance of eleven political parties for the restoration of democracy in Pakistan. His declared intent is to send the “army-installed and army-backed” government of Prime Minister Imran Khan, packing. His pain has actually been obvious since the day the results of the elections (2018) were announced. He had nearly been wiped from his usual strongholds in Khyber Pakhtoon Khwah (KPK) and Baluchistan in those elections. This trend was in motion at the provincial level in the 2013 elections but the ruthlessness of the campaign in 2018 implied that something sinister was afoot in Islamabad. Rehman got worried about the probability of his party’s total elimination after the next elections. He tried testing the theory through his usual political antics e.g., reaching other political parties to boycott the election results and standing as Presidential candidate. But no one was interested.
Rehman sensed that he was due to be replaced in future by a more mainstream party, Pakistan Tehreeke Insaf (PTI), in his usual sanctuaries. This is because he had worked closely with the establishment since his teenage. His grooming had apparently started when Rehman was only a student at Millat High School, the best Urdu-medium school in Multan. When someone important visited his father, Mufti Mehmood, in those days; he reportedly warned the visitor not to speak in the presence of the teenager because he was an informant. This explains his, sometimes, bizarre twists and turns in politics, on-off use in the back-channel diplomacy with Hindustan and Afghanistan, and why he has always remained an important part of the power structure in Islamabad since his late 20s. As revealed in the WikiLeaks, he also made a serious bid to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan in 2008 by trying to influence the American Ambassador. No wonder he recently conceded, “…I am the establishment..”.
Fazlur Rehman is no ordinary character. His CV is better than most politicians in Pakistan. He hails from a clan with huge religious and political credentials. His father was one of the founders of his party, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI). Mufti Mehmood (late) was also the first elected chief minister of Pakistan’s present-day KP province in a coalition with the leftist National Awami Party. Rehman has received religious and mainstream education and obtained a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Peshawar and a master’s degree from the University in Cairo. He understands and can speak several languages including Urdu, Pushto, Saraiki, Punjabi, Persian, Arabic and English. He is extremely intelligent, witty, clever, and articulate. His biggest asset, however, is his flexibility. As a practitioner of “Politics is the art of possible”, he is always ready for a deal and can justify any stance his chooses to take religiously or politically. In fact, he can be a liberal, moderate, and a fundamentalist at the same time and either of these as and when required. But he always proclaims to stay in the ambit of the constitution.
Rehman inherited JUI at the age of 28 following the death of his father. He immediately joined hands with the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and other opposition parties to launch the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) against the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq. Unlike Jamiat-e-Islami, his party never formally endorsed the so-called Afghan Jihad. He was, in fact, close to Muammar Gaddafi and frequently visited Libya until his death. There were all sorts of sinister stories in circulation about the purpose and outcome of these trips. The JUI eventually entered the war in Afghanistan through its madrassa network, which threw up Taliban in the late 1990s. Rehman pulled himself back just in time to be rewarded by the Musharraf regime for letting him form provincial governments in KPK and Baluchistan and become the opposition leader in the National Assembly.
Fazlur Rehman had since established himself as indispensable by doing business with the traditional power brokers. Until recently, he lived lavishly at official expense and had established his close family members, politically and financially, without any remorse. Since 2018, however, he has been certain that the current government set-up is not a diluted democracy but a hybrid regime where the army is the ruler and Imran Khan a figurehead. He believes they are in it for a long haul during which one-party rule will be established by eliminating all opposition. Rehman is convinced that unless he is a threat to the army’s cross-border projects and CPEC; he would be replaced by PTI as a compliant political dispensation with no local base. He has lost elections in the past but this time his silence is proving to be the most expensive thing to buy. Rehman tried agitating other politicians but Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) and PPP felt they had their stakes in the system. He, therefore, went solo for his Azadi March against the government in 2019.
With only a tacit support from other political parties, Fazlur Rehman could not mobilise substantial crowds from all over Pakistan. However, his dharna (sit-in) in Islamabad did cause sleepless nights for the government and the establishment. Only after critical assurances, he made an awkward exit on 16th November (2019) but threatened to come back if promises were not kept. By the time it became apparent that those promises were not supposed to be kept, PMLN and PPP had also realised that they were heading for the same grave earmarked for JUI. Since PTI government has nothing to show for their two and a half year except bad governance and faltering economy, Rehman was able to convince other political parties this time to join him for Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to remove Imran Khan. The plan is to bring down the PTI government by putting pressure on the army though public mobilization to withdraw their support for PM Khan. Three large meetings by PDM have taken place; there are more to follow before a possible showdown in Islamabad.
Except his die-hard religious followers, no one really likes Fazlur Rehman in Pakistan. He is often perceived as the irritating uncle who turns up to family weddings uninvited but gets accommodated to avoid creating a scene. Unless you want trouble, you cannot ignore Rehman whether you are in government or in opposition. Courting him is never free either because he determines his own price. He usually plays by the rules but this is time it is personal; partially due to the insults from PTI and genuine threat of madrassa reforms. He is out to use everything in his arsenal (experience, skills, religion, ethnicity, sponsored money, international backers) to bring down this government. Fazlur Rehman and the establishment – both are in a tight spot. He is fighting for his survival, and they cannot abandon their pet project. It is too close to call. If the opposition can stick together and has staying power; the establishment may blink. Alternatively, the spoils of this campaign would be shared in this order: PPP followed by JUI. Either way, Maulana Fazlur Rehman has nothing to lose!
M. Aamer Sarfraz is a philosophical psychiatrist based in London.