It was not an easy decision for someone like Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, chief of Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), to enter into mainstream electoral politics and launch the party's political wing â Milli Muslim League (MML).
The MML has already shown its presence in NA-120, and decided to oppose Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) candidate Kulsoom Nawaz. It has also decided to distance itself from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which it considers a âliberalâ party.
Interestingly, sources in the JuD said the MML opposition to Kulsoom is not because she is a woman but because they are against the PML-N politics and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. "We have aÂ lot of respect for Mrs Nawaz and we are not opposing her but the PML-N," aÂ party source said.
The MML held its first corner meeting in the NA-120 constituency recently, which was also attended by Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) leaders. The JI announced support for the JuD's 'like-minded' independent candidate, but sources hinted at a possible alliance between the MML and the JI.
While Hafiz Saeed himself is under house arrest, the MML's political and organisational structure is different from the JuD's, and in the coming months and years, its politics may not reflect JuD's basic philosophy, though they may continue to demand his release and support the Kashmir struggle.
But how different will be the MML from the JuD would be interesting to watch: whether it is just an addition to the JuD political and ideological structure or a new political narrative in the making to bring all the extremist religious and political forces into mainstream electoral politics.
It will also become clear in the coming months whether this is aÂ clear shift from the politics of the past i.e. 80s, or just a makeshift arrangement. Pakistan is already fighting a gallant war against terrorism in which over 80,000 people had given their lives including over 20,000 soldiers and officers.
In 2013, Hafiz Saeed had rejected a proposal for electoral politics and kept his party away from elections. What happened in the last four years which changed his ideological approach and made him launch the Milli Muslim League as JuD's political wing with Prof Saifullah Khalid as its chief.
Not much has been discussed in the media on this significant development in view of the changing political situation after Nawaz Sharif was disqualified and politics revolved around his GT Road rally and its aftermath; but it will have an impact on future politics.
It is a welcome sign for religious parties like Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) and JI, which had been in mainstream electoral politics for decades. The JI in particular did not get much electoral success while the JUI-Fazl, because of its past political character in which it had even shared a government with secular parties, got better results. The huge presence of the JUI-led seminaries also helped them in getting electorate support.
Sources said about 10-15 days ago, the JUI leader and Senate Deputy Chairman Maulana Ghafoor Haidri met the JuD leadership for joining mainstream politics for theÂ revival of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA).
The MML, which will not act as the political wing of the JuD, has not yet been registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan. However, it has submitted an application along with its flag and manifesto, which calls for a true democracy in the country. It has also submitted that its executive and chief have been elected.
The JuD has now asked all its supporters and workers to work for the MML and is moving at a fast pace as reflected from its first public meeting in NA-120, where it has decided to vote for an independent candidate, Sheikh Yaqub, whom the JuD sources claim is their man.
The PML-N should take this development seriously, as it is not merely the issue of the NA-120 by-election but also the next general elections. The PML-N's strong vote bank belongs to Kashmiris, while the MML is confident of causing aÂ dent to the PML-N.
While the JuD and the MML oppose the PML-N, they are also not inclined towards the PTI, because of its âglamorous and liberalâ approach. Thus, there are indications that there will be an understanding between the JI and the MML in NA-120, and the presence of JI's Secretary General Liaquat Baloch in the recent MML corner meeting is a hint that there can be a common candidate.
JuD sources claim some 15,000 to 20,000 votes in NA-120, aÂ majority of whom in the past mostly went in favour of the PML-N, particularly the Kashmiri vote. If true, it can hurt the PML-N and Kulsoom Nawaz, particularly in this tense campaign.
It will also be a test for the JuD, whether its workers and supporters have accepted this change. One thing is for sure that if the JuD, which has one of the most organised social network, manages to convince its voters, it can emerge as a strong player in the religious parties' alliance like the MMA or Milli Yakjehti Council. It would not only hurt the PML-N but also the PTI in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. In Sindh, the JUI-F is fast emerging as a political reality and the JuD also has a work force. But, if the MML supporters decline the electoral support or it fails to produce the desired results, it could also hurt the JuD as well.
Hafiz Saeed, in the last 25 years, has emerged as a strong voice in Jihad-e-Kashmir in the aftermath of the Afghan Jihad, when he formed Jamaatud Dawa and abandoned Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was banned in 2002 along with some other jihadi outfits.
Hafiz Saeed always distanced himself from electoral politics and though unlike some other hardlineÂ groups never denounced the 1973 Constitution, heÂ always opposed the system and supported the change through vote.
A well-informed source close to Hafiz Saeed and JuD believe that the change has come in view of the changing international scenario and also due to the efforts of some other religious parties and scholars that change can also come through electoral politics.
There was a time when Hafiz Saeed was among those highly conservative leaders, who even avoided being photographed. The JUD has a strong social network and for the first time it realised the importance of electronic media during 2005 earthquake and changed its approach.
It is certainly a major shift in its politics as in 2013, Maulana Samiul Haq, head of his own faction of the JUI, wanted to convert an alliance of religious parties into one party to contest elections under one banner, one name, one programme. But Hafiz Saeed opposed it, saying that he did not believe in vote and western democracy.
Pakistan's mainstream religious parties have welcomed the move as they knew that the JuD not only has aÂ strong organisation but also a vote bank. Its first test will be in NA-120, where they can play the role of a real spoiler, particularly for the PML-N candidate as indicated by one of its leaders while talking to this writer, on the condition of anonymity.
In the post-9/11 Pakistan, when dozens of sectarian and Jihadi outfits were banned, some groups decided to enter into electoral politics.
The MML is a new and perhaps the most significant change in the changing political environment and that too when the next general elections are due in 2018, and the strong political force in Punjab â the PML-N â and its leader â Nawaz Sharif â are in trouble.
While it can be interpreted as an effort to bring extremist groups into mainstream politics, how far would it change the national political scenario and narrative would be interesting to watch. It will be quite a challenge.
The writer is a senior columnist and analyst of Geo, The News and Jang
This article was originally published in The News