The Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) stands revived as a five-party alliance of religious groups on the eve of the general elections. The fact that it chose on March 20, 2018 Maulana Fazlur Rehman as president and Liaquat Baloch as secretary general only underlines the fact that the really significant parties in the alliance are the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) respectively. The other three, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan (JUP), Tehreek-i-Islami Pakistan (TIP) and Markazi Jamiat Ahle Hadith (MJAH) are not players with considerable political clout in electoral contests. A notable but not surprising omission is Maulana Samiul Haq of the infamous Haqqania madrassa that has trained so many religious extremists over the years and enjoys the reputation of the father of the Taliban. Lately, Maulana Samiul Haq has grown closer to the PTI of Imran Khan that has been in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) since 2013 and been generous in grants for the Maulana’s madrassa. Addressing a press conference in Karachi after the selection of the top leaders of the MMA, Maulana Fazlur Rehman focused his message on the mission of the MMA, referring to its glory days under Musharraf when it was ‘elevated’ to the party in power in KP, and its long standing desire to bring in an Islamic system in Pakistan. It is just as well that Maulana Fazlur Rehman made no attempt to define what such a system would consist of, since that could open the Pandora’s box of the differing interpretations of the faith by even the religious parties allied in the MMA. It remains to be seen whether the MMA’s promised manifesto in the first week of April 2018 will enlighten us more on this sticky subject. The MMA’s best bet remains a return to power in KP, but there are some factors that may make this an uphill task. Although the performance of the PTI government led by Chief Minister Pervez Khattak has been described by sympathetic and hostile opinion as ‘mixed’, it may not prove bad enough to allow the MMA to breach its walls in the coming electoral contest. The JI has been a coalition partner in the KP PTI-led government since the 2013 polls. How it will reconcile to the electorate’s satisfaction it now travelling in two boats remains an intriguing question. Also, although it is not known if the deep state is once more behind (and the benefactor?) of MMA 2.0, it is certainly a transformed political landscape from when the MMA enjoyed Musharraf’s unstinted support from 2002 onwards. At the time, because of the shadow of the deep state over its formation and success in KP, the MMA came to be dubbed the ‘Mullah-Military Alliance’. Whether that description still fits only time will tell.
The problem the religious parties and groups have faced in our history is how to translate their street power based on committed cadres (and therefore nuisance value) into electoral success. Whenever they have fought elections individually and separately, the results have been disappointing for them, translating into votes in single figures and seats of a similar quantum. That may well have triggered the ‘plan’ during Musharraf’s tenure to field these otherwise disparate and often feuding religious parties in a unified platform in the 2002 elections. Whether that was the only reason for its only success so far in winning in one province or the ‘benign’ support of the deep state helped is open to conjecture. Having travelled forlorn through the thicket of our politics after the Musharraf regime’s departure, with the exception of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s manoeuvring his party into the corridors of power with the help of the PML-N and the JI having enjoyed a berth as the junior partner of the PTI in KP, better sense and perhaps ‘advice’ seems to have carried the day and lubricated the wheels of the resurrected MMA. Whether this chariot will upset the given political configuration in the country or in KP is something only time and the outcome of the general elections will decide.