Provincialism and centralism: Levers?

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

Pakistan’s federal and provincial connectivity – which has a fraught history to put it mildly – is being subjected to increasing stress directly and indirectly, in ways great and small. Is it ingenuousness or ingenuity that is responsible: How reckless can political rivalries and pro-interventionism get?
There have been some sudden shocks but a steady nibbling at consensual accord on inter-provincial and collective national mutuality of interest is unpleasantly discernible. Wiser heads – such as the PPP’s Senator Reza Rabbani and Sindh’s former governor Zubair of the PML(N) — pinpoint errors, counsel and forewarn. Unfortunately, accusative demagoguery is more engaging and accessible in talk-shows that can tincture and define public opinion. Legitimate grievances and fears are voiced inside and outside the parliament by legislators and the executive but without doing much to allay misgivings or subject their manifestations and causes to constructive analysis and review in the houses. Parliamentary conduct appears narcissistic, rather than publicly representative. Outside of parliament, the President of Pakistan and provincial governors are national figures, symbolizing the federation. If they seem to prioritize party preference and objectives in over-frequent public appearances and off-the-cuff comment they are misreading the tenor and constitutional nature of office.
Another disquieting factor clearly at work is the PTI urge to capture – if not wrest — provincial power by using its vantage point of central control and incumbency to that end. Bear in mind that its own position of leadership in the national assembly is always wobbly. It relies on establishment kindness and the political caprice of a handful of birds of passage.
The barely retired CJP’s worthy dam fund-raising venture reignited divisive controversy about choice of sites and urgency of construction. It diverted attention from less ambitious ‘hydel’ projects and reduced focus on maintaining and improving existing reservoirs. And it revived debate about Kalabagh – a spectre that haunts Sindh as well as KP and Balochistan and was deemed to have been at last laid to rest as formally rejected in the CCI. The Kalabagh Dam project was formulated in the structure of Field Marshal Ayub’s presidential system. Even then it was critiqued as favouring Punjab and Hazara in terms of water control and distribution. Nawaz Sharif of the heavy mandate had the sense to concede it would not be in the systemic interests of constitutional federal democracy and national cohesion to tout Kalabagh.
But the PTI has every need to court Punjab and little footing to lose in Sindh or Baluchistan.
In the national perspective the government Imran Khan heads is heavily dependent on military goodwill within the establishment. The military is genetically central; and the judiciary has begun to feature as rather a one-man show. The specification and protection of provincial interests and stress on provincial autonomy, especially as enshrined by the Eighteenth Amendment, is often speciously stigmatized and confused with fissiparous intent or a degradation of national collective interest: While readily overlooking the hazards in misconceived or misapplied centralism which in the past precipitated national implosion.
There is a gratuitous tussle and exploitation (as opposed to resolution) of overlaps as to provincial/federal executive remit in sectors like health and education. New measures are generating administrative confusion locally as well as justifiable official provincial resentment. When routine functioning (howsoever deficient) in civil social sectors is disturbed, people feel the pinch immediately. Does summarily placing the JPMC under central/federal rather than provincial management better its functioning or rather disrupt it? Or is the move merely meant to assert that honest civic intent begins and ends with the PTI? If Shaukat Khanum (a privately endowed and founded hospital) is to be the approved public medical matrix who are the new Princess Dianas or Jemima Goldsmith linkages helping out and why? Then, particularly at primary and secondary level, is the medium of instruction not better determined by the province itself? Granted the advantage of a common-core curriculum, a meaningful pursuit of that goal, its expansion and implementation — if it is to be positive in a holistic national context — cannot discount provincial advice and consent.
Impelled by the 2016-18 season’s CJP’s instruction that the concerned authorities meet the court’s dizzying deadline to set to work or else, Pakistan’s major cities are undergoing a vigorous anti-encroachment drive. When the cost in human terms and displacement of the most vulnerable in society is heartbreakingly evident in cosmopolitan Karachi, the ogres are city mayors and provincial authorities who are merely carrying out inescapable orders. Perhaps we need a compassionate statute of limitations on what are unearthed as encroachments made by generations past; or deemed unauthorized by subsequent authorities. Greater discretion is now apparent in the postponement of demolition in some areas. But provincial and municipal bodies and office bearers remain buried under the rubble of demolition while denied the accolades of upholding any rule of law.
The NRO of 2007 has become emblematic of essentially self-seeking mutual compromise between political practitioners. That it may be. But it was also a means to a non-seismic recommencement of the civil democratic process rooted in the realities of that moment in real time. It returned mainstream party leaders who – however sullied and limited – had remained nationally vested. It allowed Musharraf a seemly courteous exit. There was no resort to banishment, the gallows, or jails. And amid the horrors of Benazir’s assassination her party leaders were effectively able to contain public wrath where the authorities were at a loss. Again, it was MQM’s own leadership on the ground that made nonsense of Altaf Bhai’s London-based rejection of Pakistan and calls for riot. Zia’s overthrow of Bhutto reminds us there is a time when the army takes over rather than shoot at the populace in situations where civil government is failing to maintain public safety and law and order.
In the disappointment of the shortcomings and letdowns of the post NRO decade of the reversion to civil democracy, it would be fatal to overlook the learning process inherent in the practice of democratic electoral politics. The electorate is denied the chance to learn and mature when the spirit and form of democratic commitment is violated. We cannot be educating our masses politically when we close down their democratic schools with the intent to devise ‘their’ system for good governance from political ivory towers of managed governments of national unity and closed door consultations in cabals. They have never taken grass root. If our goal is a civilized polity as distinct from a civilized elite or a transfer of power to another systemic mode; if we want to reinforce rather than pull and tug at the national fabric; we must allow democracy its stumbling unguided freeway. We cannot annihilate or sanitize the people’s leaders for them, no matter how nobly conceived the intent. In high-mindedly denouncing amnesties and NROs we may veer towards radicalized amputations as in 1971.
Imran Khan alone can guide his following out of the ongoing nationally destructive focus on the ills of the past and fixated dedication to punishing corrupt leaders. No court or dictator can ‘out’ Zardaris; Bhuttos; Sharifs; Altaf bhais; Wali Khans; Hafiz Saeeds; Bugtis; Mengals; Achakzais . . . only the sentiment of the people can empower or disempower them.

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