WHILE talking of the present and past contenders for political power in Pakistan, what comes to mind is what the novelist Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby fame had to say: “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

The rich representing the poor has long been a feature of Pakistan’s politics. Now, increasingly, it is the very rich representing the poor who by inflation, if not by falling wages, are getting poorer. Those in between the two extremes keep away from politics. They are not rich enough to contest polls, nor so poor as to line up to vote.

Presently and, it seems, for some time to come, the choice for the poor is only between the Sharifs and the Bhutto-Zardaris. Imran Khan, with all his charisma, was able to snap at them from the side because he is also cricket-rich, but even so he could not dislodge them from the centre of power.

Democracy in Pakistan is in fact a plutocracy, the rule of the rich. The real problem is not to have one or the other type of democracy, parliamentary or presidential, but to empower the poor who, irrespective of the area in which they live or the language they speak, easily constitute three-fourths of the population.

The rich dominating the present democratic dispensation are averse to local government not because it would give the poor a share in political power but because it would reduce the latter’s dependence somewhat on those who rule the roost in Islamabad and in the four provincial capitals.

The demand for carving out more provinces from the present four is aimed not at helping the common people but to create more power centres for the rich elite. New seats of government at, say, Multan or Bahawalpur or in the wilds of Balochistan would still remain inaccessible to the poor because of the lack of money and influence.

Any scheme aiming at the reorganisation of the federal structure must empower the common man in his own area and neighbourhood. More provinces, whatever their number, would not. The answer lies in assigning governmental functions and public revenues to the districts to make them accessible to the people’s representatives at a level where they would best know how to use both for the good of the poor and deprived.

The privileged class — the politicians and bureaucracy alike — have all along been acting to the contrary. All, or most, power and resources are vested in the federal parliament and government. The provinces look up to the centre for their share and the local councils, whenever in existence, look up to the provinces which hand down but a pittance.

The urban councils and more particularly the municipal corporation of Karachi was able to make its mark in the recent past only because the mayor (nazim) had direct and quick access to federal funds. But that was Gen (retd) Musharraf’s personal largesse and not institutional empowerment. Parks, flyovers, etc, are no longer seen coming up in Karachi as they did in the Musharraf era.

The existing four provinces have their historical, cultural and lingual identities. Financially, all four are of little consequence. Splitting them to form more just for administrative convenience, therefore, would be absurd and costly. The provinces’ merger into one unit in 1954 understandably hurt the feelings of the rich and poor alike in smaller provinces but this writer can from personal experience assert that administratively it was both economical and efficient for the common man. As the head of the district administration in Karachi, there was hardly an occasion to look to Lahore nor did the government there ever interfere.

If good and economical administration were to be the only criterion, Pakistan should be a unitary state. But cultural and sentimental factors outweigh administrative considerations. However, neither language nor culture should be exploited to create more provinces. Otherwise, there would be no end to the obsession.

The right course to administer well and to empower the poor at the same time would be to place the district councils on a permanent footing as a part of the administrative structure. That would be possible only if the district and its functions were to find a place in the Constitution.

The districts may not legislate but their executive functions must be specified and protected. As the situation stands, district and city councils exist on the sufferance of the provincial government. Thus, all the councils were wound up almost a year ago and if the politicians have their way, may not be restored for yet another year.

The centralisation of functions has come to a point where while in colonial times high schools were run by the district boards or municipalities, now even primary schools are being managed by the provinces. In fact, the source of real power lies at the centre — where the money is. The functions and revenues between the centre, the provinces and the local councils need to be redistributed and made a part of the Constitution.

The writer is a retired civil servant.



Updated 21 May, 2022

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