Mullah factor has dimmed in this Pakistan polls
"I've washed my hands off these mullahs, they are nothing but trouble," says a fed up Mohammad Ayub, 45. So he has decided he won't cast his vote in favour of any of the religious political parties in Monday's polls.
It seems the glory days for the turbaned and the bearded clerics are over and they will be routed out after their dismal performance by the very people who had voted them in. For five years they enjoyed the anti-US sentiments of the frontier people who have strong ties with those on the other side of the porous Afghan border.
Hailing from Kohat, in the conservative North West frontier Province, Ayub, working as a driver in Karachi for the last 30 years, is a Pakhtun and feels "democracy is the answer to tide down the rising extremism" along with "a dialogue to negotiate with the Taliban". Yet he is not going to vote for the Pakhtun-backed nationalist Awami National Party (ANP) that opposes Islamists.
In Karachi, a melting pot of people from all over the country, the Pakhtuns, retaining their deep tribal traditions, have gained a virtual monopoly over the city's transport sector.
In 2002, Ayub had voted for the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an alliance of religious parties. "We all thought that these were god-fearing enlightened scholars and would work for the poor as well as the country; but they have let us down terribly."
"I've decided to vote for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)," he says with finality and gives his reasons. "Our security and peace were gravely threatened in 1998 after India carried out its nuclear tests. If Nawaz Sharif had not reciprocated in a befitting manner, god knows India may have fought another war with us," he explains.
Thirty-something Rehmat Khan drives a water tanker in Karachi and will also not vote for the religious parties. "We don't want their type of sharia (Islamic law) that is to be enforced on the poor, with the rich conveniently exempted." He worries about what is happening in the tribal areas as well as some settled areas in the frontier province. "I would never want Pakistan to become what Afghanistan was during the Taliban rule."
In 2005, the MMA had tried to get the Hasba Bill passed in the NWFP assembly that sought to severely restrict women's rights and institute a 'moral police' in the province.
And like Ayub, Khan too feels no affinity for the ANP. "They have never done anything for the country except opposed each and every government in power."
And so the mullah fatigue seems to have set in.
Najam Sethi, editor of popular weekly The Friday Times predicts the "Mullahs will be cut down by half in votes" now that there is a split within the MMA and the split between JUI itself." He blames their past performance for their fall from grace with the result the main beneficiary in the frontier would be the ANP.
Lahore-based political analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi agrees. "The indications are that the Islamic parties will get less votes and seats as compared to 2002. They are now divided and the performance of the MMA government in NWFP was not so impressive that they should retain the loyalty of the voters."
Further, he says, in 2002, these Islamic parties cashed in on anti-US sentiment in NWFP because of the negative impact of American action in Afghanistan on Pakistan's Pakhtun areas. "The government was also sympathetic towards them, enabling them to get 11.2 per cent votes. This time, most of these factors have slipped away and the ANP and other parties are expected to do better than 2002," predicts Rizvi.
"I think mullah fatigue has always existed, and the mullahs survived because it was easy to use them for political or other opportunistic purposes. To me, it's more of a northern phenomenon being scattered to various cities in their search for employment," explains senior journalist and analyst Najma Sadeque who adds, "this was never mullah country".
However, she believes, "feeding and housing poor boys has always got them recruits in conditions of the state increasingly impoverishing the populace, and now we see the brainwashed, mindless results."
Besides, she says, institutionalised religion was the legacy of Ziaul Huq, the military dictator.