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Sunday Nov 03 2019

Maulana on high octane

Maulana Fazl who was seen as a scavenger, is on the hunt, while hunters have been reduced to mere scavengers. Photo: AFP

Maulana has pulled the biggest of all the contemporary dharnas organised since 2013. Like the two earlier organisers, Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri, he wants the scalp of the prime minister as his trophy for the feat of bringing his crowd to the capital.

He may not get anything to hang on his wall, but he has already inflicted the first of a thousand cuts that keep a civilian government bleeding in this country and kill it in the end. This is how Imran Khan had gone after Nawaz Sharif and the wily Maulana is following a formula that has already been tested to perfection.

After extracting the teeth of the two major political parties, the PTI had thought that it would be able to graze forever in the pasture of power. But nature can be cruel and we have a jungle where there are no set rules for grazing and hunting. Maulana, who was seen as a scavenger, is on the hunt, while hunters have been reduced to mere scavengers.

Without joining the hunt, the PPP and the PML-N expect to get a bigger share of the hunt than Maulana himself, because they have bigger bodies. That is not unfair. Maulana has got something precious in exchange: the two major parties have extended moral legitimacy to his dharna.

Maulana is a minor electoral player. Without such support from the major parties, his claims about rigged elections and his demand for the government's resignation would have sounded quite fantastic. Maulana can now very well claim that he is not alone in seeking the trophy of that strange animal called Tabdeeli.

Read also: Fazl to govt: 'Your writ over Pakistan has now ended'

There will be no dearth of spoils. Even as Maulana's army was on the move, traders returned home after getting almost everything they wanted. This generosity, extended in the shadow of Maulana, will cost the government some serious amount of blood in the form of lost taxation targets and increased fiscal deficits. Worst of all, such cowardice will result in losing momentum on economic reforms which have become a life and death question for the national economy . Other vested interest groups will also flock to the capital to ensure their pound of flesh.

Despite the government's hasty retreat, it will not be easy to neutralise the bazaar. The FATF wants the government to document the economy and the IMF wants it to increase taxation substantially. Traders, holding 18 per cent of the GDP, don't like the government's gaze and don't want to give it a penny. They would rather get a place in paradise by donating generously to religious organization. One can safely bet that the bazaar has donated generously to support Maulana's assault on Islamabad.

What will Maulana go back with at the end of the dharna? This most asked question is quite irrelevant in the context of the dharna. A dharna defies the logic of Greek theatre. It does not seek Denouement, or the point in the play where the complexities of the plot are unraveled and the conflict is finally resolved. It is all about creating and maintaining suspense as long as possible.

Read also: Deadlock persists as govt refuses to cave in to opposition's demands

And we also know that attention is the most precious commodity of our times, which both the market and politics trade in. A dharna steals a huge amount of attention at a low cost. It makes the public imagination hostage. Once you have attention, it can be transformed into one hundred goods – including clean-shaven Tabdeeli and bearded Tabdeeli.

A prolonged dharana can be nerve-breaking for the government that is the target of the unwanted gaze and unpleasant language. Drawn-out suspense can also be hard upon markets. Dharnas can play havoc with the economic and business sentiment. However, the central figure of the dharna becomes bigger and bigger in public imagination.

The government has tried to starve Maulana of the oxygen of airtime, but has not fully succeed. Muted speeches and self-censored transmissions are serving as appetizers, sending viewers to social media where they get a lot more than they would have watched on television.

Maulana's dharna is no fun for the urban middle class. How long can you see those bearded faces? How long can you listen to speeches without good music filling in hesitations and breaks? How can one sit or stand in a political gathering without an item number that gives your body a chance to get some aerobic exercise?

But the middle class does not have much to rejoice anyway. Papa cannot afford to upgrade his Corolla; Mama can barely afford her designer clothes and both refuse to get you the new Iphone. This wasn't your idea of Tabdeeli – or was it?

Read also: Opposition stands by demand of PM’s resignation

But Maulana represents a different class. He can succeed in gripping the imagination of the religiously inclined section of the lower middle and working classes. This is a class that is not represented by any party at this moment and these are classes that are being hurt the most in these times of economic hardship. The precariat, the class that lies on the boundary, is falling fast into poverty.

Maulana Khadim Rizvi had almost succeeded in creating a PTI of the poor, but then he overplayed his hand. Unlike Rizvi, Maulana is not an upstart. He knows the ins and outs of the system. He represents a powerful network of madressahs and he heads one of the oldest political parties in the country. He hopefully will not commit similar mistakes and cannot be neutralised in the same way.

As for the public, we did not get the time to mourn the tragedy of 75 persons roasted alive only because our Railways was caught in a time warp. We did not get enough time to curse the person who has been handed charge of this crucial institution only because of his entertainment skills.

We did not get time to celebrate Pakistan's magnificent achievement in the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business, made possible by over one hundred dedicated civil servants working hand in hand at twenty seven agencies in three governments – federal, Punjab and Sindh. We did not find time to thank these heroes of the nation. We did not find time to appreciate the hard work done by the World Banks' country director and his team in making this achievement possible.

The wily Maulana has captured our imagination. He wants to avenge his humiliation by turning the PTI into a liability. He has seen how Americans destroy arsenal and compounds when they aren't required any longer. There is no place for liabilities in the cruel world of strategy.

Imran Khan may soon wish he had Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari in the arena, rather than Maulana who is running on high octane rather than diesel.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @zaighamkhan

Originally published in The News