Do the fragmented religious parties have a future in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan? Can they sink their differences to emerge as a force to reckon with?

No, perhaps never. They are destined to play second fiddle to the leftist or rightist parties that have a better following. If they could not play the lead role during the past many decades of their existence, they are not expected to do miracles in the future.

The religious parties have divided the society in Shia, Sunni, Deobandi, Brelvi and Ahle Hadith schools of thought and followers of one sect don’t support the other even in election.

And then each sect has a number of groups, because of which no party can claim to be the sole representative of that sect.

Divisions are so deep-rooted among the “preachers of unity among the Ummah” that followers of one sect don’t like even to offer prayers behind the Imam of a rival sect. And if someone is highly tolerant, he will do so only with a heavy heart.

This is the on-ground situation when religious parties have to project themselves as a better alternative to the PML-N, the PPP and the PTI. If they can’t rise above their sectarian difference and get united for their collective good, they should better shut down their separate “political kiosks” and merge themselves into the major parties they think are closer to their ideologies.

The religious parties had set up the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, an alliance that succeeded in forming its government in KP during the Musharraf era. JUI-F leader Akram Durrani became the chief minister, mainly because the Musharraf government wanted to show the world that the elections held during the era of his “enlightened moderation” were so transparent that religious forces had captured a province. (Durrani, now a federal minister in the PML- N government, remained chief minister from November 2003 to October 2007. The performance of this government can be gauged by the fact that it was replaced by a secular Amir Haider Hoti (who ran the province from March 2008 to March 2013).

The JUI-F, which held centennial celebrations only a few weeks ago, had bagged only 1.4 million votes in the 2013 elections, which speaks volumes about the “popularity” of this party despite decades of its existence. It has about a dozen seats in the National Assembly.

There is little realisation among the religious parties about the need for unity. Roughly a million statements have been published quoting various leaders that the MMA, dormant since long, is being revived. But, so far, it is hard to say that the “resuscitation efforts” will bring it back to life.

Ideology, it appears, has never been a major consideration for the JUI-F and it is open to joining hands with any other party that gives it its due share. It’s a coalition partner with the current PML-N-led setup, it worked with the PPP during the Benazir rule, and even with Gen Musharraf.

Interestingly, at a time when it was sharing power with the PML-N it also succeeded in getting Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haidri elected as Senate deputy chairman with PPP’s support.

Thus, it has established itself as a party that can join hands with two rivals at the same time.

(Because of its adaptability some people liken the JUI-F to potato, that can be cooked with mutton as well as many other vegetables).

Despite the fact that the JUI-F leadership is good at bargaining, it has not been able to raise its parliamentary strength. It got about 1.4 million votes (or 3.2 percent of the cast votes) in 2013 elections. It has about a dozen seats in the National Assembly, which is not a good performance.

The JUI has another faction, led by Maulana Samiul Haq. Despite several efforts the two have not been able to iron out their differences.

The Jamaat-i-Islami is another major religious party. But it has also not been able to expand its political base over the past decades, probably because it has involved itself in a number of activities and can’t focus on politics. It has votes in many constituencies, but not enough to get its candidates elected.

After the 2013 election, the JI has been a partner of the PTI in KP, which is a factor that has widened the gulf between the JI and JUI-F. Maulana Fazlur Rehman regards PTI Chairman Imran Khan as his enemy No 1 and an agent of the Jews.

In case some miracle happens and a religious parties’ alliance comes into being, Maulana Fazl will like it to join hands with anti-PTI forces to contain Imran Khan. But the way the JI leaders are lashing out at Nawaz Sharif, especially after the apex court’s interim verdict in Panama Papers case, it appears very difficult for the JI leadership to join hands with the PML-N.

But this doesn’t mean that the Jamaat is sticking to some principles. Not long ago, the Jamaat had made adjustments both with the PML-N and the PTI when by-election was being held on NA-122 (Lahore). In this election PML-N’s Sardar Ayaz Sadiq was contesting against PTI’s Aleem Khan.

Jamiat Ahle Hadith, like other religious parties, is also a divided house. One faction, headed by Professor Sajid Mir, has reduced itself to the religious wing of the PML-N and will remain so in the foreseeable future. Senator Mir can’t dream of reaching the upper house of the bicameral legislature without the PML-N’s support.

The other faction is led by Hafiz Ibtisam Elahi Zaheer, which is just a non-entity.

Like other religious parties, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Pakistan is also a divided house and stands no future. One faction is headed by Pir Ijaz Hashmi, a trusted aide to the late Maulana Shah Ahmed Noorani, the other is headed by Sahibzada Abolkhair Muhammad Zubair and the third by Maulana Masoom Naqvi.

There are also many Sunni factions led by various leaders in the field. Regrettably, these leaders have never realised that they have done a great disservice to the Sunnis by dividing them into countless groups. Shias are also no exception as far as disunity in their ranks is concerned.

One faction is led by Allama Raja Abbas Nasir, which is an ally of the PML-Q.

The other faction called Islami Tehrik, headed by Allama Sajid Ali Naqvi, is closer to the JUI-F.

There is another party – Pakistan Awami Tehrik led by firebrand Dr Tahirul Qadri. Interestingly, it does not like to be called a religious party. The party has pockets of support in various parts of the country – but not enough to get elected its nominees. And since Dr Qadri and both his sons are foreign nationals, under the law they can’t contest the election.

Unless Dr Qadri returns to Pakistan and surrenders his foreign nationality, he can’t reach the parliament. And the party will have little interest in getting somebody else as a legislator. The PAT, therefore, is expected to stay away from the legislature in the foreseeable future.