|By :||Business Standard correspondent Shantanu Bhattacharji (with additional inputs from AP and ANI)|
Are the hidden hands pulling the strings in Pakistan’s precarious drama? Is he a pawn in the hands of Pakistan's Army? Is he mere playing with the emotions of the masses who are supporting him? Will he bring peace or further break the polity into small pieces?
Or is he a change agent that Pakistan was waiting for more than a decade? There are many more questions that need to be answered in clear terms. It appears that the country is passing thorough a phase of topsy-turvy change. At present, no one has a clear cut solution to Pakistan’s problems, which are aplenty.
Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri’s dramatic entry into Pakistani politics has raised many eyebrows on suspicion that he is seeking to derail elections expected to be held by May at the behest of the army.
On 15 January, Pakistan's Supreme Court ordered the arrest of premier Raja Pervez Ashraf and 15 others over corruption charges, raising fears of a political crisis just months ahead of the polls. Ashraf denies accepting bribes when approving power generation projects as minister for water and power in 2010.
Here are 10 things you might want to know about Tahir-ul-Qadri
1) Born on February 19, 1951 in Jhang, Pakistan, he is the son of the great spiritualist and intellectual of his time, ash-Shaykh Dr Farida’d-Din al-Qadri. Tahir-ul-Qadri began receiving education at a young age, in Islamic and secular sciences simultaneously.
2) In 2006, Qadri announced that he was disillusioned with the country's political scene, moved to Canada and obtained citizenship there. He is demanding electoral reforms ahead of the forthcoming elections. He said the ruling Pakistan People's Party should involve the army and judiciary in forming a caretaker government to oversee the polls.
3) His sudden return to Pakistan in mid-December surprised the nation, and his speech in Lahore on December 23 denouncing rampant corruption at all levels of government galvanized a segment of the country deeply frustrated with Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari's inability to clamp down on terrorism and mend the country's economy.
4) In 2012, the cleric paid a visit to India to release his Fatwa book. He urged India and Pakistan to reduce defence spending and focus on the welfare of poor people. During his visit he also went to Ajmer Sharif.
5) He earned his Master of Arts in Islamic Studies in 1972 and was awarded the University of the Punjab Gold Medal. He obtained his LLB in 1974 and began practicing as a lawyer in the district courts of Jhang. Qadri moved to Lahore in 1978 and joined the University of Punjab as a lecturer in law and then gained his PhD in Islamic Law.
6) In March 2010, he declared a fatwa against terrorism. He said that terrorism is terrorism, violence is violence and it has no place in Islamic teaching and no justification can be provided for it.
7) He is the founding leader of Minhaj-ul-Qur’an International (MQI), an organisation with branches in over 90 countries and that works for the promotion of peace and harmony between communities.
8) A one-time supporter of military dictator Pervez Musharraf, Qadri fought the 2002 National Assembly elections from Lahore and won his seat comfortably under his party’s banner, the Pakistani Awaami Tehreek.
9) Qadri's call to move towards parliament has divided Pakistanis. Some hold him up as a champion of reform, others see him as a possible stooge of the military, which has a history of coups and interfering in polls.
10) Qadri is also a former professor of Islamic Law at the University of the Punjab and the youngest person ever to have been awarded a professorship in the history of the university.
Dramatic entry into Pakistani politics
To his supporters, Tahir-ul-Qadri is a savior of Pakistan's fragile democracy who will right the country ahead of elections expected to take place this spring. To his detractors, he is a shady religious figure bent on derailing the vote, possibly at the behest of the country's powerful military.
After years in Canada, Qadri returned to Pakistan last month and gave a speech demanding that sweeping election reforms be implemented before the vote. His appearance in Lahore drew tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of supporters into the streets. Since then, Pakistani media and political figures have closely followed his every word, and Qadri plans to lead his followers in a march on the capital next Monday.
Qadri, 61, is a charismatic Sunni Muslim cleric with a large following that extends outside Pakistan. He has a reputation for speaking out against terrorism and promoting his message through hundreds of books, an online television channel and videos.
Now, Qadri's focus is on Pakistan's election laws. He is suggesting vaguely worded changes, such as making sure candidates are honest as well as ending exploitation and income disparities so that poor people are free to vote for whomever they want.
Under Pakistan's constitution, a caretaker government takes over for 60 to 90 days before an election and presides over the vote in a show of impartiality.
The charismatic Sunni Muslim cleric
Qadri says he does not want to delay the election and that the caretaker government could implement his proposed reforms within days. But he has also said that if it takes longer than 90 days, then it's perfectly fine — and constitutional — for the caretaker government to stay on.
That has alarmed critics who fear that a caretaker government could last months and even years. In a country with a history of military coups, some Pakistanis fear that Qadri is doing the bidding of the military in an effort to delay elections indefinitely.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Qadri denied any connection to the military and said his aim is to destroy the current political system in which he contends a few powerful families control the political process. It is a system that he says is deeply corrupt and a democracy in name only.
"People were waiting for someone to raise a voice for true democracy," he said. "They (the current government) have almost finished their tenure of five years. They have delivered nothing to the people of Pakistan except terrorism, extremism, worsening law and order situation, hunger, poverty, lack of education, lack of health facilities, and unemployment."
Qadri spoke from his residence near the headquarters of Minhaj-ul-Quran, a religious and social welfare organization that he founded. The group says it has a presence in 90 countries, runs hundreds of schools in Pakistan along with an ambulance service in Lahore, and provides aid to people affected by recent flooding.
First came into prominence in 2010
A one-time member of parliament, Qadri quit in 2004 over what he says was disgust with the ruling system and moved to Canada in 2006. Since then he spent most of his time in Canada with occasional trips to Pakistan or other countries to promote his agenda.
He earned praise in the West when he came out with a 600-page fatwa in 2010 condemning terrorism, using the same language in the Quran and Islam that militants often use to justify their actions. He's spoken at such institutions as Georgetown University and the United States Institute for Peace, and held rallies in Britain against extremism.
Supporters say the fatwa led to death threats, and his security precautions are obvious at his events. A man with a Kalashnikov rifle watched over as he spoke this week to a crowd of lawyers supporting next week's march, and people entering his home and offices are patted down for weapons.
But it is his anti-government message that has drawn the most support in Pakistan. Many people are frustrated with a political system they believe is corrupt and dominated by two political parties: the Pakistan People's Party, which controls the government, and the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
Both are political dynasties run by powerful families: the PPP is controlled by the Bhutto family and run by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of slain politician Benazir Bhutto. The PML-N is the party of the Sharifs, a powerful family from the largest province, Punjab.
After five years of democracy, Pakistanis are grappling with widespread power outages that leave them freezing in the winter and boiling in the summer, frequent terror attacks and rampant corruption. For many, Qadri represents hope. "We really feel that he can bring change to the electoral system," said Aqeel Ahmed Rana, who owns a textile business in Lahore.
But other Pakistanis question whether he's a front for Pakistan's powerful military. The military in the past has also suggested that free and fair elections can be held only after the system is cleaned up, said Raza Rumi, director of the Islamabad-based Jinnah Institute.
Rumours about US and Britain backing Qadri
"His clear stance is that elections should be delayed, that we should cleanse the electoral system and then go for elections. This is also the military line," Rumi said. "The best way to clean up is through the democratic process itself. Let the people clean up."
The Pakistani military is widely believed to dislike both the PPP and the PML-N and want a more pliable government that would protect its interests, though it has denied playing any role in Qadri's campaign.
In a country where conspiracy theories abound, there are also rumors the U.S. and Britain are backing him, something both their embassies have denied.
Many detractors ask why he's returned now, just when Pakistan is poised to have an all-important transition from one civilian government to another. Why did he not come back in 2008 when the civilian government was first elected and then work from within the country for reforms?
Questions about Qadri's character
Qadri is also facing questions about his character. Videos have surfaced on the Internet of Qadri appearing to take credit for the country's controversial blasphemy law, which calls for death in some cases, but distancing himself from it when speaking to an international audience. In another video making the rounds, he describes to his ardent followers how Islam's Prophet Muhammad came to him in a dream.
Tariq Azeem, of the PML-N, called Qadri a "slightly dubious character" who says one thing when speaking to a domestic audience and another when speaking to foreigners. He questioned why Qadri only recently became involved in politics and where the money is coming from to finance his march and recent appearances.
"Suddenly he comes up with all these demands," he said.
Qadri denied to the AP that he wants to delay the elections or that he's a front for anyone's agenda. He said many of his comments have been taken out of context and distributed on social media in an attempt to discredit him.
On Thursday, Pakistan's Minister of Interior Rehman Malik issued a strongly worded statement that Qadri would not be allowed to rally in Islamabad, warning that the Taliban might attack the event. He described Qadri's use of "agitation" as "illegal and unconstitutional." Large shipping containers have already been set up to block protesters from getting close to government buildings.
Qadri calls this type of language a ploy by the government to scare off his supporters. But he said he and his followers would show up, optimistically predicting a turnout of 4 million people.
"I hope when there is an ocean of people and they are peaceful and they are just and honest in their demands and they are standing up for democratic rights, I hope almighty God will help them," he said.
Pak Army's 'poster boy'
The growing suspicion among political observers is that he is backed by the powerful Pakistani military after he said he wants the Pakistani Army to be involved in the upcoming elections.
Qadri, who was relatively unknown until he returned to Pakistan last month after seven years, runs a network of religious schools and charities around the world from his home in Canada, the Christian Science Monitor reported.
According to analysts, Qadri, who supported the Musharraf regime during its initial years, is the new poster child for the military, which wants to influence the electoral process.
Raza Rumi, director at an Islamabad-based think tank, the Jinnah Institute said Qadri's challenge to the government comes as Pakistan's civilian government is set to see a prime minister make it the full five years for the first time and hold independent elections, which the military may perceive as a threat to its power.
The military has been sidelined from the equation; and if elections happen under this understanding, it will be a major shift in civil military imbalance, Rumi said. The military wants to stop this from happening at any cost, he added.
According to Rumi, Qadri is a moderate cleric and his version of Islam challenges the extremist groups like the Taliban, but this does not mean he should be involved in the governance of the country. Pakistan is already suffering from the mixing of state with religion in the past because of the military, he added.