Provincial autonomy and 18th Amendment that enshrines the former is yet again a centre of political controversy. Audible murmurs in favour of ‘Islamic Presidential system’ with a strong centre are being frowned at by many analysts and political leaders. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) is the most conspicuous among the condemners of this arrangement. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari even went to the extent of delivering a ‘delicate’ kick to the PTI government with the hope that it would suffice for the current incumbent’s final undoing. For the PPP, with its ever-shrinking electoral base, any such arrangement that calls for a strong centre is a political nemesis.
This column is an attempt to problematise the simplistic prescription of provincial autonomy as the ultimate panacea of all the ills of our socio-political landscape. Before delving deep into conceptual framework of provincial autonomy, it will be pertinent to give a background of the 18th Amendment with particular reference to provincial autonomy.
18th Amendment in the constitution of Pakistan was passed on April 8, 2010 by the National Assembly. 292 of the 342 members of the National Assembly voted in favour of the amendment, a rare moment of consensual camaraderie among Pakistani legislators. That act of unanimity amazed many because such an amendment ostensibly did not mean to serve the interests of any individual or a faction. 18th Amendment got Senate’s approval on April 15, 2010, and it became an act of parliament when Asif Ali Zardari, the then President of Pakistan put his signature on the bill on April 19, 2010. The package was intended to undo the sweeping/discretionary powers concentrated in the Presidency under former Presidents General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Ghulam Ishaq Khan and General Pervez Musharraf and to ease political instability in Pakistan. The bill reversed many infringements on the Constitution of Pakistan over several decades by its rulers, both military and civilian, with autocratic inclinations and motives.
The amendment turned the president into a ceremonial head of state and transferred power to the prime minister, and also removed the limit on a prime minister serving more than two terms. The North-West Frontier Province was renamed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in accordance with the wishes of its Pashtun-majority population. However, the renaming of North West Frontier Province sent tremors of discomfort among the Hindko speaking people who felt left out while that exercise of renaming of the province was carried out.
Among other changes, courts were debarred from endorsing suspensions of the constitution, a judicial commission was to be set up to appoint judges, and the power to appoint the head of the Election Commission no longer rested with the president. The bill also enhanced provincial autonomy. The president would no longer be able to declare emergency rule in any province unilaterally. The devolution plan projected through the 18th Amendment brought about radical re-orientation in almost 15 ministries which had been controlled by the centre prior to the passage of the amendment. These ministries were either transferred to the provinces or their scope of action was tangibly altered, and new nomenclature was given to several of them.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais’ analysis was balanced and pithy when he said, “after decades of being run from Islamabad, provinces will eventually have the right to legislate, to control their own education programs and significantly more of their finances, among other things, a difficult retooling that could lead to even more instability if it is not handled delicately.” Equally important was the fact concerning the capacity of the provincial government to address issues of gargantuan proportions. Managing Karachi by the government of Sindh on its own, without Islamabad’s support, appears to be quite an untenable proposition. Similarly, can the merger of FATA with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa materialise unless the centre deploys its resources to see the merger take effect. The menace of religious militancy and sectarian antagonism can hardly be mitigated if left to the provincial governments.
Undoubtedly, the provincial autonomy is vital for a country like Pakistan, which is extremely diverse but equally important is the issue of integration. Balochistan and Gilgat Baltistan are the areas which should be properly integrated into the federation before according them autonomous status. All this can only happen at the behest of the central government. Otherwise, Pakistan as a nation state will wither away.
I am saying all this because among all these diverse regions and cultural units, no points of commonality have yet been worked out. At least all the stakeholders within the federation must come together and agree on some common denominators. Faisal Bari underlined two areas as problematic that have thereby become a thorn in the flesh of those speaking for the federation. In Faisal’s own words “One has to do with devolution and the other, related but separate, to do with fund-sharing arrangements between the federation and the provinces: the vertical part of the National Finance Commission formula.”
One cannot dispute these areas of contention between the federation and the provinces. However, considering the question of ‘class’ of vital importance, I will argue that distribution of resources, without undertaking radical/ equitable social reforms will just be an act of appeasement of the provincial elite. With no bourgeoisie in most of the regions, equitable distribution of resources through provincial government comprising elite, will be counter-productive. Provincial autonomy in regions where tribalism and feudal values are all pervasive will be detrimental in every way. In such situations even trickle-down effect takes ages to happen.
Besides class, the ethnic and cultural diversity cuts across different provinces, There is Baloch community living in Sindh and Punjab, Pakhtuns residing in Balochistan and Sindh; that the extremely complex social fabric will be sustained through according provincial autonomy raises far more questions than suggesting tenable answers. We must consider all these factors in a dispassionate manner.