The story of the beginning of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan is closely linked to post-9/11 politics in Pakistan, as many analysts have written about. But as this story is traced, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Pakistan’s electoral landscape is tied up with events in Afghanistan.

If the Soviet invasion led to the state’s close relationship with Deobandi groups, and their eventual impact on internal politics, the rise of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan is due to the deterioration in this very relationship.

The state’s efforts to promote Barelvi Islam in the aftermath of 9/11 has been written about extensively. For instance, Amir Rana has detailed it on these pages, more than once. These efforts included the creation of the National Council for the Promotion of Sufism and the Sufi Advisory Council.

But perhaps what was more important were the happenings behind the scenes as Pakistan was confronted militancy and cracked down on the various groups, mostly Deobandi, using violence. This led to fractures and more in the trusted, long-lasting relationship between the state and Deobandi groups, which had always been viewed with resentment by Barelvi groups. This provided room for Barelvi ulema to reach out to the state in a bid to fill the space. The fatwa against jihad by Tahirul Qadri and then the Sunni Ittehad Council are examples of this.

The assassination of Salmaan Taseer and the subsequent trial and hanging of Mumtaz Qadri simply provided the catalyst to the movement, giving it the populist traction it needed. Khadim Rizvi, with his rhetorical skills, was able to provide the leadership. Support was found in the emotional appeal of religion and love of the Prophet. It has been reported that in Karachi the organisation has also attracted the former activists of Muttahida Qaumi Movement and Sunni Tehreek.

But even here, it is the 9/11 “breakup” that proved critical. As Abdul Basit, a Singapore-based researcher, said, in the aftermath of 9/11, three alliances broke – the one between the military and Deobandi groups, the one between the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and Barelvi supporters (the latter was partly due to attacks on Sufi shrines and partly due to the party’s friction with the military) and the one between Shia supporters and the Pakistan Peoples Party, which led to the Majlis Wahdat-e-Muslimeen.

Popular support

As a slight detour, consider the long march to Islamabad, which is a staple in our politics. After 1988, the Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League (N) were willing to undertake this march and destablise their rival. Post-2008, this task had been undertaken by a number of parties and characters – the Pakistan Muslim League (N) in 2009, Tahirul Qadri in 2013, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in 2014 – including the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan in recent years.

It was used to paralyse the Pakistan Muslim League (N) government in 2018 and its recent planned trip to Islamabad has shaken and stirred Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government more than anything else has in three years. Some go so far as to conjecture that the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan was put up to the task as other parties were perhaps not willing to or could not be used because of a lack of trust as well as the international context.

Those who put forward this idea point to how easily or quickly the party’s leadership and workers were rounded up in 2018. They were ready to offer apologies and even renounce politics in exchange for a get-out-of-jail-free card. It Is noteworthy that for a year and a half after their release from jail, little was heard from Rizvi and Pir Afzal Qadri, which shows that when the state is in the mood to the crackdown, it can do so effectively.

In other words, there is a chance the party may continue to play a role far bigger than reality. This, after all, has been the constant in Pakistan’s politics. However, none of this is meant to discount the popular support for the party which has increased in recent years. This has led many to make (dire) predictions about the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan’s growing role in electoral politics. It was the third-largest party in Punjab in the 2018 election and many feel there may be an even bigger victory next time.

But can Islamists score big in elections in Pakistan? The only such recent victory was the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2002. And after all these years, it is still hard to conclude how fair and free that sweep to power was.

Right-wing push

Short of a similar free and fair election, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan making it big on the electoral scene would be a break with the past because Pakistan has never welcomed Islamist parties in a big way at the polls. And this is because, unlike most other Muslim countries, the state and mainstream parties in Pakistan have always been comfortable appropriating Islam, which does not leave the Islamist parties with an agenda unique to them.

And this, unfortunately, is what may be the ultimate result rather than a growing presence of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan in electoral politics. Witnessing Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan’s growing popularity, chances are the mainstream parties in Punjab will become more right-wing in a bid to attract the conservative vote.

Signs are already evident in Punjab. In recent years, despite polarised politics, Members of the Provincial Assembly tend to come together for regressive legislation. The Assembly passed a law mandating an ulema board to vet textbooks. When the law was passed the speaker, Pervez Elahi, who earlier supported Musharraf and his moderate agenda, said: “We want to protect future generations from the evil.”

In September, the assembly asked for Quranic verses and hadith (and translations) to be displayed in government offices and district entrances and last month for the Khatam-i-Nabuwat oath to be added to nikah documents. These resolutions are passed unanimously. Imran Khan’s statements regarding blasphemy and his efforts to highlight the issue in his international interactions as well as the government’s recent decision to celebrate Eid Miladun Nabi exuberantly can also be seen in this context.

All this is happening because politicians think it will win them brownie points with voters. The trend will strengthen as the election draws closer. This may limit Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan’s electoral fortunes but the radicalisation of politics and the people will happen nonetheless. What else can be called a pyrrhic victory?

This article first appeared in Dawn.