“When you’re bleedin’ a guy, you don’t squeeze him dry right away. Contrarily, you let him do his bidding. Suavely. So you can bleed him next week, and the week after. At a minimum.” – Christopher Moltisanti, The Sopranos (Season 2)
The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) is the most Pakistani of all Pakistani political parties. It has lived the lives and archetypes of all that have come before it, and any that may come after. Sparked by a compelling and unassailable top-line narrative, supported by powerful stakeholders within the state as an implement to weaken an already entrenched political group, and now a fully grown, vastly uncontrollable ‘adult’ Frankenstein’s monster that inhales the ecosystem that bred it in the first place. Growing like a cancer, organically, as it consumes all the unwitting molecules of normalcy that bend their knee before it, in supple prostration.
Relishing the most recent capitulation of the Pakistani state to the TLP is a strange but understandable instinct for the pro-democracy types whose stomachs churned at the sight of the manner in which the Faizabad dharna of 2017 was used to settle scores with the PML-N government of the day. The Imran Khan fan club in the most elite of spaces and among powerful stakeholders has shrunk since back in 2017 – but lessons are never learnt if a price is never paid.
Since the Faizabad dharna, the TLP leadership has figured out a formula that makes their speeches, their Facebook posts and their WhatsApp messages more powerful than all the votes that PML-N earned in 2013, or that the PTI ‘earned’ in 2018, and certainly more powerful than all the guns and batons bought for the Punjab Police since 1947. The TLP leadership figured out how to decapitate the faux authority of the Pakistani state so that they could announce that there is a new Capo in town.
All of this wasn’t planned – but some was. The state’s machinations are much too lacking in depth and sophistication to be able to plan for its own funeral. But most of it has been enabled and catalyzed. Remember: some geniuses thought the best counter to Deobandi and Salafi jalal was to exploit Barelvi chill. Other geniuses thought the post-Qadri tsunami would be mitigated by conceding space to the leadership of the same Lal Masjid that represented ground zero of the TTP’s anti state movement. Some other geniuses thought Nawaz Sharif Version 2014 could be tamed through a street protest pincer: soft Barelvi pressure from the right, and Imran Khan’s container vibes from center. Each chapter converged at Faizabad in 2017.
Salmaan Taseer didn’t know it then, but standing up for Aasia Bibi’s legal right to defend herself against blasphemy allegations was the unwitting spark that lit the fuse in a society that, back in 2011, was still racking up jet black terrorism body count, and preparing for a generation of PTSD public policy in which all that decision-makers can see is red (that is the red of Pakistan’s balance sheet, and the grey of the FATF’s grey list).
The 2018 election saw a pre-election compromise of the electoral process. The same geniuses that got Afghanistan wrong in the 1990s, the TTP wrong in the 2000s, and Barelvism wrong in the 2010s, got the economy and politics wrong in 2018. The most potent device that was deployed to secure the wrong answer in 2018? Of course, it was the TLP.
With the third highest vote count in Punjab, the TLP did to the PML-N what the PTI had not managed to do to it in 22 years: make a big enough dent among key young Barelvi voters in central Punjab to rattle the confidence of the third and fourth tier political agents that lean PML-N. Give them something to think about. The margin of error for the PML-N was already razor thin. Mariam Nawaz Sharif’s ill-fated jihad against an institution that enjoyed the swagger of the post-APS national compact was decisive.
The TLP came out of the general election much more confident than it had out of the Faizabad dharna. At Faizabad in 2017, it learnt that it could hold the entire country hostage. At the polling booth in 2018, it learnt that its narrative was not just compelling on You Tube or at the Masjid. It learnt that its ragamuffin appeal had an electoral dimension. Imagine what a clever set of manoeuvres could do for it!
In 2018, the TLP clashed with the system on three separate occasions, using the news cycle more effectively than any Madison Avenue agency branch office in Pakistan ever could. Each time, it walked away with an extra pound of the writ of the state’s flesh. A corpus only has so much flesh to give. In 2020, France’s officially sanctioned pro-blasphemy politics came to the TLP like a godsend. In his rush to compete with Sultan Rajab Tayyab Erdogan, Prime Minister Imran Khan sought to teach Emmanuel Macron a lesson with political gesticulation that far exceeds Pakistan’s financial and diplomatic capacity. The interest on that wager has accrued not to PM Khan or the Pakistani republic, but to the TLP. The latest fiasco that had the GT Road in a chokehold is a direct product of a short-sighted obsession that Pakistan’s teenage-brain, but old-man-body decisionmakers have with winning the afternoon social media wars, and the evening talk show battles.
The TLP is now one of Pakistan’s premier political groups –banned or not. Intellectually challenged, electorally weak, and Rawalpindi-supplicant leaders have no chance of competing with the street power that the TLP and its future permutations already represent. The only hope of extinguishing the fire of the TLP is a medium-term strategy that deploys three elements of state power that are all compromised at the moment (and have been since at least 2011).
The first is the power to shape acceptable religious discourse. This is a power that the Pakistani state gave up in the 1980s so that it could help mobilise for the war against the USSR. Without re-acquiring control over what is sold to citizens as ‘religion’, Pakistan will end up like India – a radicalised polity whose liberal elite hide either in Dubai, or the West, or under the protection of the radicals themselves.
The second is the power to spend money on things that will wean ordinary citizens away from TLP speeches and YouTube channels and towards whatever narrative the state is selling. This begins with instruments like cash grants, and ideally a substantial universal basic income (under BISP/Ehsaas), extends to large-scale interest free loans and qarz-e-hasna schemes for urban youth, and includes large scale employment for young women and men across the country. Jobless, hopeless and rudderless equals money in the bank for extremists, whether they wear the TLP lapels or not.
The third is coherence. The most dangerous trend that has shaped the civilian and military divide since 2014 is the distinction in the Pakistani imagination between the uniform of the police and the uniform of the military. The first and last line of defence within a country’s borders, and especially within the urban areas of a country should always be the police. By disabling the police, empowering those that operate from the shadows, and suspending rule of law for mobs, Pakistan has undermined its national security and corroded the idea of writ of the state. This will not be restored because someone is issuing new talking points, nor because Fawad Chaudhry has impressive intestinal fortitude. It will happen when the police have actual and real power to do its job, without molestation, nor compromise. For any reason.
It is not too late. But it will be. Eventually.
The writer is an analyst and commentator.
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