Thursday May 23, 2024

Eldorado that may not exist

By Aamir Ghauri
April 11, 2018

Had there been a Richter mechanism to gauge political tremors, Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League was jolted on Monday when 10 of its parliamentarians announced their desertion from the party to form a front for south Punjab – if such a polity exists in reality. It definitely exists in the minds and dreams of politicians who work tirelessly to stay permanently perched on the power merry-go-round.

One may laugh or lament at the lucidity or the logic presented by the deserters for most of them are known as political rolling stones. Khusro Bakhtiar, a London School of Economics graduate who was later called to the Bar at the Lincoln’s Inn is the leader of the pack for now. He has been a minister of state for foreign affairs in the Musharraf government after winning his ancestral Rahimyar Khan seat in 2002 on PML-Q ticket. He lost in 2008 and won again in 2013 but as an independent candidate but later joined PMLN. He hopes to win again and look for a new party now.

Politicians like Bakhtiar do not make headlines these days unless they perform a summersault of a particular genre – relinquish the ruling party. So he sat with his companions the other day to address a presser and declared their departure so that could “join the party that shows commitment to our cause.” The cause, he announced and the companions concurred is their attempt to create new federating units so that the federation could get stronger. What could be nobler than that?

But as Irving Berlin wrote for the 1936 musical comedy Follow the Fleet, there may be trouble ahead. Who knows if all these ‘brave’ southerners would win in the forthcoming elections? Their desire to transform the lives and livelihoods of les miserables of south Punjab depend on too many ifs and buts. Creation of new provinces has never been easy. Even omnipotent dictators like Ziaul Haq failed to rip up the Constitution and create 20 odd provinces despite employing clerics like Tanzilur Rehman of Advisory Council of Islamic Ideology to come up with a religious rationale for such an administrative division.

The dictator’s dream has been recurring at regular intervals ever since. Politicians of sorts jump up too in order to win favour from real or imaginary non-political forces. Tasneem Nawaz Gardezi, a politician from Bahawalpur, suggested the country should be divided into dozen-and-half provinces while he was serving as federal health minister in Nawaz Sharif’s first government. Gardezi, very understandably, lost his cabinet position after speaking his mind. Rumour had it that he was not speaking his mind after all.

Since Pakistan remains a confused polity for reasons well known to students of country’s politics, debates weird and wonderful keep appearing in media. For a country that was created to be a parliamentary democracy, one would still find voices that advocate a shift to presidential form of government. Ideas introduced during dictatorships keep surfacing when politicians grow a little bigger than their actual or desired size.

Demands for administrative bifurcation should be listened to but should they be acted upon? That remains an intriguing question. Pakistan has tried One Unit, presidential governance, autocratic dictatorships, and flimsy democratic governments. The most potent argument against the so-called champions of the cause of south Punjab remains why they kept mum or shied away from raising the issue if it was a genuine one while they were in government. Was their love for their parliamentary terms and joys of ministerial portfolios greater than their desire for enhanced representation for their communities?

If it was, then they must first admit their utter failure to run four provinces efficiently before offering their nonsensical and vague solutions to turn the poor and desolate districts into Eldorado of sorts. The stupidity of the argument is bewildering that the desire to divide the realm into more provinces is not their linguistic and political biases but a genuine desire to represent the wills and wishes of their people better in locally crafted parliaments.

Punjab consisted of four administrative divisions at the time of Pakistan’s creation – Lahore, Rawalpindi, Multan and Sargodha. In 1955 the country was made a victim of One Unit experiment. The reasons are better left to be discussed some other time. When the One Unit collapsed with the demise of Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s Pakistan and when the East Pakistan became Bangladesh, the remaining Pakistan returned to the pre-One Unit administrative structures. New divisions and districts were subsequently added for better administration and service delivery in far-flung areas.

The commissionerate or division system was abolished once again in 2000 by the Musharraf regime. He introduced the Local Government System – an old wine in a new bottle – to take democracy to grassroots level. Ayub Khan tried it and failed under the Basic Democracy System – that was meant to handpick people’s representatives, groom them to govern them. Both experiments didn’t last beyond the dictator’s political life.

Today, Punjab has 10 divisions and 36 districts. That means the administrative structure have grown from division to district to tehsil to union council levels. There are administrative, police, health and judicial officials at rudimentary levels. If they are underperforming then it is a matter for the government to fix those issues. Experience has told us that these officials have been corrupted by political interference. If political influence of the members of one national and four provincial legislatures is so corrupting and corrosive that the state is accused of utterly failing its citizens, imagine the influence of 18 or 20 parliaments.

And how would these parliaments and parliamentarians be nursed and nurtured. The 18th Constitutional Amendment calls for enhanced political autonomy. The proponents of new provinces do not present an elaborate plan how these provinces would run their economies. Areas living off handouts from the Centre would find it difficult to feed the gargantuan appetite for perks and privileges of the so-called people’s representatives let alone helping the deprived and the destitute.

Elections in Pakistan are known as seasons of money making and horse-trading. Rumours of billions being spent in the recent Senate elections are still being discussed in national media and parliaments. Grapevine suggests more parliamentarians would leave the ruling party. No wonder, it was being openly discussed in the media for many months that around 50 sitting MNAs and a corresponding number of MPAs would contest the next elections as independent candidates. For they have been winning in their respective constituencies by being the influential politicians or powerful feudal. They would then ask for the ‘right’ price from the ‘right’ party in joining fees.

But there is a possibility their bluff is called this time. Imran Khan’s PTI has welcomed the latest desertions but made it clear that no alliance would be offered to them yet. Many believe PTI waits for a nod from the powerful quarters before making up its mind. Asif Zardari’s PPP has welcomed the ditching decision and offered a working relationship as “its suited the party position for south Punjab”. Hopes of possibly making money would have to wait till they win in great numbers and be in a position to help either the PPP or the PTI to form the next government. It will also depend how badly the PMLN perform in a province that lifted it to power time and again.

Raising slogans is one thing. Getting them materialised is quite another task. South Punjab is not a homogenous polity. Politicians from Bahawalpur, Multan and Dera Ghazi Khan have independents ideas about what it means to be south. They differ on more items than those that they agree on. There might not be a talk of one solid south Punjab when it comes to tabling resolutions. Wait and see how the unity dissipates when faced with local and regional biases. Ideas of shared history and bonding shatter pretty easily in the south as it does elsewhere in Pakistan.

The debate could become more debilitating in days to come. Why just south Punjab? Why not north Punjab too? What’s wrong with cutting Hazara from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa? Shouldn’t Karachi be a separate province? Should there be such a vast and expansive Balochistan? Why settle for a bonbon when there are possibilities of having the whole bag of candies? Wishes do not grow on trees and all hardly come true.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, creation of a province or provinces is not an easy task. There are strict constitutional requirements for a resolution to be successful. But then Khusro Bakhtiar and his companions have made it clear that if their efforts to table the resolution in Punjab Assembly fails in succeeding, they would move the Supreme Court.

As if all cases that go to Supreme Court ripen in a lifetime.