Fazlur Rehman, chief of his faction of the right-wing Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), currently holding Islamabad to ransom with thousands of his followers to force Prime Minister Imran Khan to resign is a wily old politician with a near unparalleled streak of finding himself into the corridors of power, any which way. Until now, that is.
The JUI-F supremo is demanding that Khan resign because in his view the incumbent has come into power through a rigged election and failed to deliver. Rehman himself lost both his seats in the National Assembly — lower house of Pakistan’s bicameral legislature — in last year’s general elections. The portly 66-year-old lost the seats to much younger contestants from Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI).
Rehman also lost heavily in the subsequent presidential polls to the PTI’s candidate Dr Arif Alvi in a failed attempt to enter the parliament through other means.
He has since rallied the two main opposition parties namely, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), both of whose leaders are incarcerated over corruption charges and abuse of power (ex-PM and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif is already convicted) and have their own axes to grind, in a studied endeavour to revive his and their political fortunes.
Interestingly, despite publicly supporting Rehman and his campaign to oust the Khan government, the two parties have baulked at the idea of forcing the issue through extra-constitutional means and refused to be a part of the JUI-F’s sit-in, leaving Rehman isolated and on the edge.
The general perception is that the two parties are doing so to seek concessions for their own jailed leaders, one of whom, Sharif, has already been released by court for eight weeks on medical grounds.
So why is Rehman bent on trying to upset the applecart and why now when the Khan government has painstakingly fronted multifarious challenges to navigate the country to some form of political and economic stability?
The commentariat in Pakistan has a near consensus on the running theme — Rehman’s desperate but mostly vain attempts to stay politically relevant. His political scorecard makes for not only interesting reading but serves as a valuable guide to understand where he is coming from.
Since succeeding his cleric father Mufti Mehmood in 1980 — an event which itself caused a split in the party since the much senior cleric Samiul Haq refused to work under the-then 27-year-old — Rehman’s ability to somersault for a share of spoils has meant he has trucked with almost all key political allies and rivals with the finesse of a gymnast.
Consider two examples.
After raising the political heat on General Pervez Musharraf for his decision to sign with the US on the war-on-terror post-Nine Eleven, driving support for Taliban against Western forces in Afghanistan and pushing for enforcing Shariah, he conveniently dropped the “ideology” to suit his ambition for power. He even didn’t let Musharraf putting him under house for almost half a year come in the way of getting the Opposition Leader’s slot as he cut a deal to support the general’s controversial Legal Framework Order that enabled the strongman to give legal cover to his extra-constitutional steps and stay on in power!
Similarly, the cleric at one time opposed the rule of a woman in Islam — two-time prime minister Benazir Bhutto, in this instance — but then conveniently, settled for a role as chairman of the National Assembly’s Kashmir Committee under her government where he effectively, used a large number of foreign visits for joy ride at public expense as well as other perks.
But nothing quite beats the infamous WikiLeaks cable of November 27, 2007 from Anne Patterson, the-then US ambassador in Islamabad, which offers a fascinating insight into the mind of the JUI-F chief and his insatiable lust for power.
The said cable indicated to the US that his “still significant” number of votes were “up for sale” even if his party’s voter support dropped in the 2007 general elections.
Patterson’s cable provided details of a meeting between JUI-F leaders Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, Senator Talha Mahmood, Senator Azam Swati and Malik Sikander Khan and US diplomats, in which she wrote:
“Fazlur enjoys being courted by both Musharraf and Bhutto and sees himself increasingly in the lucrative position of being kingmaker, if not the next Prime Minister, because of JUI-F’s voter strength in what may be a three-way vote tie among Pakistan’s major parties. Even if JUI-F’s voter support drops, he has made it clear that, free and fair elections notwithstanding, his still significant number of votes are up for sale.”
The ambassador acknowledged that JUI-F wanted to be a major party and wanted to be “more engaged with the US”.
The cable added: “At one point in the conversation, Rehman asked the Ambassador if the USG (United States Government) would deal with him if he was elected as Prime Minister and cautioned the USG not to put all of its eggs in the basket of Benazir Bhutto. Ambassador noted that it was not USG policy to crown any particular leader in Pakistan….Rehman indicated his desire to travel to the US and suggested he could lobby the Congress and American think tanks “as well as Benazir Bhutto.”
Ironically, for someone who relented on his declared opposition to the late Benazir for a share of spoils, he and his party have an abiding misogynist streak and publicly disapprove of women’s participation in public rallies in a country where just a tip over half the population is female. Even women journalists were forced to leave their ongoing sit-in!
So will a desperate Rehman eventually carry out his threats to march on the PM House and force his exit?
Even as a government committee engages regularly with the opposition’s Rehbar Committee — and more recently, the entry of wily political cousins, Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, who have his ears — for a peaceful way out, the powerful military’s public pledge earlier this week “to support national institutions at any cost” would likely have chastened Rehman to the outer limits of a misadventure.
lThe writer is Features Editor. He tweets @kaamyabi
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