The faltering state system gives enough space to such leaders to flourish
It is a matter of satisfaction and relief that the political theatre staged by Dr Tahirul Qadri in Islamabad had an amicable ending. He threatened on more than one occasion to unleash his loyalists on the government installations but good sense prevailed on his side and the federal government. His appeal for dialogue on his demands on the fourth day was quickly responded to by the federal government because it wanted his loyalists to leave Islamabad.
Dr Qadri has claimed victory because his demands have been accepted but as a matter of fact what he got in the declaration was nothing more than a face-saving arrangement. These demands could have been accepted without the march and the sit-in.
Dr Qadri’s position was weakened by the unanimous declaration of the opposition parties that rejected his demands and reaffirmed their faith in the constitution and the electoral process. These political parties declared that they would resist any attempt to postpone the elections. Even Imran Khan separately refused to join Dr Qadri’s sit-in. These developments contributed to Qadri’s decision to seek a dialogue with the govt on his demands.
The sit-in ended peacefully but it focuses attention on periodic challenges to political stability and democracy in Pakistan. The rise of self-styled saviour with an aura of righteousness cannot strengthen democracy and constitutionalism. Even if such a leader professes to identify with the constitution and democracy, he has a tendency to articulate every principle of democracy to his advantage. As the self-styled saviour claims to represent the ultimate truth and the interests of the society, he expects others to fall in line with him. There is little room, if any, for consultation or sharing with other political and societal players on the agenda he wants to pursue. Once everybody accepts the agenda, there can be some flexibility on how to go about realising his agenda.
Dr Qadri has developed a cult type leadership by combining Islamic ideological scripture and idiom with popular political and social slogans of the contemporary context. This brings together the traditional Islamic identity and religious scriptures with modern ideas and societal notions. With powerful oratory he fully captured the minds of members of his religious movement.
Most people who joined him in his long march were his religious followers, activists of his religious movement and those studying in his educational institutions. They had religious and emotional attachment with him and they could go to any extent on his command.
The leader that seeks blind loyalty from his followers by invoking ideological-religious appeals, selective historical narratives and populist rhetoric cannot be helpful to democratic political order. The insistence on the people obeying his commands because he knows what is good for all cannot endure democratic and pluralist political order. Rather, such a leader at the operational level becomes arrogant towards and dismissive of others and he creates a personalised authoritarian political order, if not a theocratic state. This would be close to the Iranian political order that has the trappings of modern and democratic politics but the ultimate power lies with the Supreme Spiritual Leader.
History provides ample evidence of cult-type leadership that emotionally controls the followers. It may use human shield of his followers to protect itself and employ violence or threat thereof by his loyalists in the name of the ideology either for pursuing his political agenda or to contain dissidents.
It is a colonial style leadership that creates top-down hierarchical social and political arrangements where the highest premium is assigned to loyalty and obedience from the followers. They may make some suggestions but the final decision rests with the leader which is absolute and final.
The rise of authoritarian and self-centred leaders with saviour complex is symptomatic of acute social, political and economic crisis in a society and the inability of the political and state institution to respond effectively to the basic needs and aspirations of the people. Internal crises in a society create an identity crisis among people and they tend to lose confidence in their capacity to change. They feel dis-empowered, unable to control their future.
Lacking self-confidence the people are vulnerable to emotional and hardline ideological appeals. Such appeals tend to create confidence among them and mobilise them for a better future. With the decline of Marxism and Socialism, religious ideologies seem to fill the gap for the people and society in search of self-confidence and socio-political identity. In Islamic countries literalist and fundamentalist appeals have attracted a large number of people. Hardline Islamic idiom or appeal cannot bring about an-all embracing Islamic revolution in Muslim societies because of Islamic-denominational conflicts. As one becomes literalist and fundamentalist in interpreting Islamic religious scripture, sect or “Maslak” dominates interpretation and thus the appeal is neutralised for those who identify with a different school of Islamic thought.
Therefore, an Ayotollah Khomeini-type leadership cannot emerge in Pakistan because of pluralist nature of Islam as practised in Pakistan. Even if a person is above denominational divergence, the competing interests and the people will view that leader in the existing denominational context.
Dr Tahirul Qadri has a strong appeal for the followers of Barlevi Islamic tradition because of his knowledge of Islam and modern world and excellent oratory. However, his political agenda is not supported by a large number of Barlevi religious leaders. The religious leaders and followers of other Islamic Fiqah traditions reject him altogether.
The poor performance of the elected governments in governance, provisions of basic facilities to the people, growing internal insecurity, energy shortages and price hikes have alienated a large number of people. They are vulnerable to those who can exploit their present deprivations and aspirations for the future.
There is strong tendency in Pakistan to seek an extraordinary person who will solve their problems rather than striving for solution of the problems through the political process and use of their democratic power to elect the rulers. As they wait for some saviour and messiah to come on the political scene and solve their problems, a religious leader with strong oratory and understanding of their frustrations and aspirations has a better chance to sway them.
Pakistan’s democratic and electoral experiment will have to cope with the Qadri-type saviours who try to build personal political fortune by invoking Islam for the people in search of a better and secure future. The faltering state system gives enough space to such leaders to flourish.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.