Saturday September 18, 2021

The PML-N and ‘South Punjab’

February 04, 2019

The PML-N is at its generous best and this time round its generosity is not focused on its beloved city of Lahore or GT Road where the PML-N’s Pakistan begins and ends.

The party has suddenly become kind to southern Punjab. The south had asked for one province and the PML-N is insistent to give them two. I am sure millions of people in Multan and Bahawalpur must be crying with mixed feelings of happiness and guilt, cursing themselves for judging the party and its leaders so harshly for such a long time.

Last week, the PML-N moved a constitutional amendment bill in the National Assembly, seeking the establishment of the Bahawalpur and South Punjab provinces. According to the bill, the province of Bahawalpur will comprise only one administrative division – Bahawalpur. The South Punjab province will comprise two administrative divisions – Dera Ghazi Khan and Multan.

I am wondering why the PML-N stopped at two provinces for southern Punjab. It could have given a province to each division in the south and created three provinces instead of two, or even given a province to each and every district in southern Punjab. This generosity comes at a huge price; seven divisions of the rest of Punjab, with 70 percent of population, will get only one province.

It is amazing that even when tied to a lamp post, the PML-N can be so clever by half. Its move has essentially checkmated the creation of a new province in Punjab. While there is a consensus among all political parties representing the four provinces regarding a new South Punjab province, the idea of two provinces is a non-starter that cannot win any support – and that is the very reason for flaunting this bill.

The proposal also serves another purpose. It works as a catalyst to divide people in southern Punjab on the demand for a province. It encourages a section of population there to gather around a cause that is illusory and self-defeating.

That was how the idea of the one-division Bahawalpur province was suddenly resurrected seven years ago when the PPP, led by Yusuf Raza Gilani, started articulating the demand for South Punjab forcefully and made it a part of its election pledge. My friend Mohammad Ali Durrani was dispatched hurriedly to Bahawalpur as an exorcist to bring back the demand for the Bahawalpur province to counter the move. The PML-N also found it useful and adopted it as a strategy to deal with the demand.

The demand for the Bahawalpur province is based on nostalgia for the princely state of Bahawalpur that was dissolved in 1955. Whatever the historical reasons and justifications, a one-division province cannot be created on administrative grounds. Such a province is bound to be opposed by all federating units because they will see it as the first step towards dissolving the federation and turning the country into a unitary state. They will also see it as a move to make the Senate ineffective as what would be former Punjab would get half the seats, diluting its importance as the house of the federation.

Except for some naïve people like the Nawab of Bahawalpur, all supporters of the Bahawalpur province know it and use the demand tactically to block the creation of the South Punjab province.

Using the demand for the Bahawalpur province in such a deceitful manner and as a spoiler is neither good for Punjab nor the PML-N. The PML-N could have been more honest. It could have rejected the demand for the division of the province and presented its own proposal for equity in different regions of the province. It could have proposed policies that it failed to adopt during its own long rule in the province. For example, it could have proposed a provincial finance commission and a fair mechanism of distribution of resources and jobs in the province.

Southern Punjab does not trust the PML-N – and for good reasons. The PML-N, since the 1980s, has followed policies that were discriminatory to the region. Its model of development, based on patronage, diverted resources to the northern districts of the province. It carries a share of responsibility for all the three major reasons of lack of development in the region – discrimination in development funds, jobs and industrialisation.

Low development spending has resulted in huge disparity in per capita availability of public resources, including schools, hospitals, roads, electricity, piped gas and infrastructure. This in turn has resulted in widening disparity in human development between the two regions of the province.

Since the government has remained the largest employer in the country, government jobs are an important resource for power, income, development and upward mobility. Low investment in human development, lack of zoning and plain discrimination have resulted in the denial of a fair share in jobs to the residents of southern Punjab.

The Parliamentary Commission for Creation of New Provinces noted in 2013: “The quota of the Punjab in the federal civil bureaucracy is nearly 50 percent of the total. Ordinarily the three southern Punjab divisions of Multan, Bahawalpur and D G Khan should get 30 percent of the Punjab quota in the civil bureaucracy, being 30 percent of its population. However, it has only 12 to 15 percent quota in federal civil jobs.” This situation is worse in the case of non-competitive jobs that are allotted on the basis of patronage.

Linking the PTI’s success in southern Punjab with the electables alone is not correct. It is not correct that voters in southern Punjab change loyalties alongside electable legislators. Southern Punjab remained loyal to the PPP through thick and thin for decades. The electable cannot do much if the people of an area have a strong association with a party. Think GDA in Sindh. In 2013, southern Punjab started wavering and the PML-N managed to make inroads in the region. It had a chance to sink roots but instead squandered the opportunity.

The PTI has paid more attention to the region, has articulated its grievances – and the region is fairly represented in the top leadership of the party. And the PTI was able to create a wave of popularity in the region before many electables were nudged to switch loyalties.

Governments in Islamabad and Lahore do not have to wait for a new province to deliver justice to the areas that have been impoverished through discriminatory policies. Similar problems also exist in many regions in other provinces where it is not possible to create provinces.

The demand for creation of South Punjab has reached a level where such clever tactics can be extremely counter-productive. At the moment, the demand is being articulated in a peaceful and democratic manner. There is no ethnic tension in the region and the peaceful division of the province will ensure that it remains this way. However, foot dragging through clever tactical moves and denial of justice may result in much bitterness and conflict.

The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.

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Twitter: @zaighamkhan