Senator Raza Rabbani talks about provincial autonomy and the forces challenging it
n April 2009 an all-parties parliamentary committee was constituted to deliberate over the landmark constitutional amendment, later to be known as the 18th Amendment, aiming to strengthen parliamentary democracy and to empower the provinces. Senator Raza Rabbani, a Pakistan Peoples Party stalwart who has served as chairman of the Senate, was a part of that 26-member parliamentary committee.
Following recent remarks made by a few federal ministers on the need to ‘correct’ the 18th Amendment, the opposition parties were left agitated triggering a political debate. Rabbani remains one of the most vocal voices defending the amendment. The News on Sunday interviewed him about the recent hullabaloo surrounding the 18th Amendment.
The News on Sunday (TNS): Recently some government ministers stirred controversy with their comments regarding the 18th Amendment. How do you see this latest development? Was the debate initiated to improve the mechanism; was it an attempt to divert attention from the much-critiqued government handling of Covid-19 pandemic; or was it something more sinister?
Raza Rabbani (RR): [Broadly,] there have been two views [of federation]. The centrist forces, which prevailed from 1947 till 2010, claim that a strong Centre is the key to running a federation. The other side holds that federating units need to be empowered for a robust federation.
The recent attempt is the latest by the centrists. At a time when countries need to unite to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, they have stirred this controversy.
Let me point out that the centrist forces include not only the Establishment but also some politicians.
The founding fathers of this country were clear about the constitution and its implementation. The basis for this claim lies in the famous 14 points of Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who clearly stated that a uniform measure of autonomy should be granted to provinces. After the death of our Founder, Pakistan’s establishment, in collaboration with those with vested interests took over the regime of a progressive welfare state and converted it into a national security state. It was then that the priorities changed. Seizing control of the resources of the state and using it in line with their centrist agenda became the hallmark of our civil-and-military bureaucracy. Initially, it was a hidden thing but now it has come out in the open.
Just to give one example, despite the fact that I gave a detailed ruling as chairman of Senate about the mechanism for resources extended to provinces in the oil and gas sector, not a single [major parliamentary] party wants that to happen. And we know why – because the Centre wants to cling on to the financial and natural resources of the people to further its own political agenda.
TNS: Do you think the provinces have struggled with regard to the implementation of the amendment, particularly in the health and education sectors? The Sindh chief minister recently stated that every foreign government they had approached for assistance in controlling the virus had told them to route the request through the federal government. This indicates a harmful absence of federal-provincial liaison. Do you agree?
RR: When the amendment was being drafted, all members of the constitutional committee were conscious that they were devolving powers in keeping with the sense and spirit of participatory federalism. We had it in mind that a great amount of coordination would be required and we took a conscious decision to form the Council of Common Interests (CCI).
We wrote it in the rules that the council would be chaired by the PM. We did that for a reason. There had been only 11 meetings of the CCI since 1973 because the premier was not part of it. Besides we made it mandatory for the council to meet once every 90 days. The CCI was to have its own secretariat. It has yet to be established despite the passage of nine years.
Since the concurrent list was to be abolished, the CCI was to have the role of a parallel cabinet in terms of the devolved subjects and the Federal Legislative List-II. Unfortunately, the CCI has not been used to its optimum. The last meeting of the CCI took place in December 2019, after a gap of over 300 days.
My point is that if you don’t call for a mechanism, you can’t hold the amendment responsible for the crisis. Instead, blame it on the [governments’] failure to use, rather, improve the mechanism. The mindset is still not up for any improvement as it will require greater leadership at all levels.
So if you ask me whether the literacy rate has improved after the devolution? Can someone tell me about the literacy rate till 2010 when the centrist mindset was ruling the roost?
And mind that ever since the Government of India Act, 1935, except in the 1962 constitution, education has all along been a provincial subject, yet the federal government was sitting on it.
I just ask one question: if you call for a central education system, [is it because] provinces are less patriotic than federal authorities? [Is it because] they might inculcate their cultural values by including folklores and local traditions in their curriculum? My culture and my history is not rooted in Arabia, it stems from the Indus. The centrist mindset fears that the provinces will include our true cultural values and put history in correct perspective and that the youth will then come and challenge [some of] the state’s actions. The state wants to produce prototype citizens.
TNS: Recently, there were reports that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) was willing to support the government with regard to proposed changes in the 18th Amendment in exchange for concessions in the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) law. How does the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) view this situation?
RR: The PPP is very clear on this subject. We are not ready for any compromise on this. If there is an effort for a dialogue on more participatory federalism then we are with you. But if instead you want to roll it back or undo provincial autonomy then we will condemn it in the parliament; even in the streets, if we have to.
If there is any attempt at tinkering with the 18th Amendment, the federal government will come under severe pressure. In the meanwhile, we shall not forget East Pakistan because the fault lines are similar: the RAW is operating in Balochistan; there are [anti-state] movements in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; and there is a nationalist movement in Sindh. Therefore, to defend the constitution, the PPP will play a decisive role. I am also sure that the PML-N will not sway to the other side. We just saw the recent statements from their leaders who were on media.
The interviewer is an Islamabad-based broadcast journalist