Who’s afraid of mainstreaming?

December 12, 2021

Cracks are appearing within the TLP. Despite the tense atmosphere after the arrest of its chief, Saad Rizvi, the party was unable to block the crucial city junctions

A supporter of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) hurls stones towards police during a protest in Lahore. Image courtesy: Reuters
A supporter of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) hurls stones towards police during a protest in Lahore. Image courtesy: Reuters

The Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) emerged as the prime beneficiary after its agreement with the federal government when the latter officially acknowledged the once outlawed party as a mainstream political outfit and released its leader, Saad Hussain Rizvi. However, it now appears that its political fortunes are declining, at least in Karachi where in 2018 it had managed to clinch two Provincial Assembly seats and a big share of the vote.

Cracks are appearing within the TLP. This is primarily due to the fact that, unlike in the past, the party was unable to block the crucial city junctions amidst tensions following the arrest of its chief Saad Rizvi. Its performance in the Cantonment Board election has been dismal and one of its MPAs, Muhammad Younus Soomro, has not been attending the Provincial Assembly sessions recently, reportedly in a token of protest against the party high command.

Soomro tells The News on Sunday (TNS) his absence from the PA session was due to certain personal commitments. Party sources, preferring anonymity, insist otherwise.

Old guard vs new guard

“Soon after the death of Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the tensions were out in the open. There is friction between the old guards who control major Barelvi mosques in the city and young cadres who want to play a bigger role in the mainstream politics,” says Rizwan Attari. “The old guards are reluctant to navigate the party along political lines,” says Attari, the TLP organiser in Karachi Central.

The Sindh chapter of the party is led by Ghulam Ghaus Baghdadi – the custodian of a prominent Barelvi mosque in Karachi, Bahar-i-Shariat. The influential clergyman got the official authority soon after Saad Rizvi’s nomination as party chief. While he now remains an influential figure at the party’s central command, some of the local clergymen affiliated with the party are not happy with him.

A number of influential clerics, including Bilal Saleem Qadri, the son of Sunni Tehreek founder Saleem Qadri, who ran from NA-246 as a TLP candidate, have left the party because of differences with the new leadership setup. Uncharacteristically, influential Barelvi group Dawat-i-Islami has issued a notification proclaiming its disassociation with the TLP.

“Bahar-i-Shariat is the main financial stream of the TLP in Karachi. It brought bulk of the funds for the last general elections primarily through its strong bond with the Memon business community of the city,” says Moazzam Shah, a local journalist. “Given its strong financial backing, it has a massive say in the party’s decision making – even if it is at odds with a number of influential local clergymen.”

“Today, the question is: What have we achieved after all the friction with the state?” says a TLP worker affiliated with the Karachi chapter.

Zaman Jaffery, a former chief of the party’s Karachi organisation, and now an active leader in the city chapter, does not think disagreements within the organisation are a big deal. “Under Ghaus Baghdadi, we are going to make waves in the coming local bodies and general elections. Our recent public gathering in the city is an indication of the fact,” he says.

Lost workers

Some TLP workers says the recent standoff between the state and TLP workers resulted in major casualties on both sides. They say while at least four policemen were killed, 24 TLP workers, including seven from its Karachi chapter, lost their lives.

“The question is: What have we achieved after all the friction with the state? In the past, we were able to force the resignation of Law Minister Zahid Hamid over his negligence. Today, after giving our blood and sweat, the French ambassador’s issue has not been resolved according to our desire,” says a TLP worker affiliated with the Karachi chapter. “After all our sacrifices, the only word that came from Saad Rizvi was to fill the ballot boxes.”

Jaffery, however, says that no worker has come forward to express their reservations on the party policy for Saad Rizvi’s release. “We have been visiting workers’ homes to offer condolences and have come across no such reservations.”

Pressure group

A former representative of the party, who was also a candidate in the last general elections, said that the official party policy then was not to seek vote from ‘other’ religious sects and communities.

“The same old school clergymen are heading the city chapter. Expecting them to leave their eccentric politics is living in a fool’s paradise. They have shaped the narrative of the party supporters on maximalist positions. Anything moderate doesn’t connect with them. How long can they survive as a mainstream party with just a few slogans? It is a pressure group, not really a party,” he says.

Shah says that the context is the key to understanding the TLP. “The TLP, as a whole, is a reactionary Barelvi pressure group. Contrary to some people’s expectation from the group, its inner dynamics will never allow it to function like a political party, because that requires flexibility. If TLP leadership chooses to be flexible, it will lose its loyal cadres and be just another political party. Street agitation has been its key strength. Electoral politics is secondary to them and they know it. The more violent they are, the more relevant they become.”

Attari, however, is confident that despite organisational limitations, the party will continue to have an impact on the electoral scene. “As long as the masses connect with our manifesto, it does not even matter if we are not seen to be behaving like a mainstream party,” he concludes.

The writer is a human rights reporter based in Karachi. He covers    conflict, environment and culture

Who’s afraid of mainstreaming?