South Punjab as a solution

September 29, 2014


The writer is a freelance columnist.
The writer is a freelance columnist.

TWO recent events — the Punjab-centric nature of current politics in Islamabad, and the PPP chairperson’s recent visit to south Punjab — have redirected attention towards the subject of new provinces. The rationale for the issue is fairly clear: Pakistan as a country of 180 million plus people cannot be governed (in any productive way, at least) through only four federating units.

Out of all existing proposals, the case for south Punjab is perhaps the most immediate in terms of its political footprint, as well as its developmental justification. Punjab is currently one of the largest federating units in the world, bigger than most countries by both population and area.

While a favourable history has precipitated rapid capital accumulation, outward migration, and urbanisation in the north, the burden of indifference and a less favourable past has induced high poverty, greater inequality, and sluggish upward mobility and growth in the south. Little surprise then that, according to a recent Alif Ailaan fact sheet, 10 out of the bottom 13 districts in terms of proportion of out-of-school children are from that particular region.

Out of all proposals, the case for south Punjab is perhaps the most immediate.

Developmental reasons aside, another reason given for the bifurcation of the province pertains to its political imprint on federalism. The province provides over half of all National Assembly seats (148 out of 272), of which 100 exist in the densely populated, well-connected region of north and central Punjab.

Consequently, party incentives are geared towards sweet-talking the relatively well-off electorate in those 100 seats, while the use of political elites as party proxies is utilised in the impoverished south. This has been the strategy of choice for not just the ruling PML-N, but also Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, the main opposition party in the province.

What do we see happening as a result? For starters, the government is accused of consistently padding its northern home turf through development spending, with the occasional gimmick being thrown towards the south. To date, it has made no effort to ground itself in other parts of the country through local level initiatives.

The opposition, not to be left lagging, stands accused of ignoring KP where it’s in government, in order to reignite its popularity in Punjab’s core urban districts. Their rhetoric of merit and anti-corruption rings loudest with the demographic found in those particular areas. Regardless of whether these assessments are completely accurate or not, there’s widespread sentiment of regional injustices and skewed political priorities.

The important question then is does a bifurcation of the province into two resolve the following two issues: the issue of development spending and service delivery; and the impact on federalism and political party priorities.

The first is straightforward. The current NFC and 18th Amendment arrangement would devolve fiscal transfers and administration to the new province, whereby spending could potentially happen based on the requirements of its constituent districts.

Planning would take place for these 13 (or 15) districts alone instead of as part of the 36 as it happens currently, and the provincial chief executive of this new province would have far less on his or her plate compared to the current one in Lahore. Going by these, admittedly developmental, measures, and existing evidence from around the world, the case for a new province in Punjab is fairly watertight.

The second issue, that of political party incentives and health of federalism is trickier. A new province, for all its merits, is not being drawn on a blank slate. There is a pre-existing pattern of politics in the region, one that would not be easy to displace. At the immediate outset, the two provinces would only — and this is worth stressing — have the desired political impact if their electorates vote differently, and on different issues.

In 2013, the PML-N improved on its south Punjab tally from 2008 by 25 seats. Out of the existing 48, only eight seats went to candidates affiliated with other parties; the rest went to the PML-N or to powerful independents who later on joined the ruling party. This shows that, for whatever reason, the south largely voted along the same lines as the north . The same electorate pushed the PPP — that had made some noises for a separate province — down from its 21 seats in 2008, to a handful in the last general election,

If a new province were created today, the PML-N would still be dominating the entire Punjab region, and would actually increase its control over the Senate through the extra seats allotted to the new federating unit.

The moral of the story is that as long as one Punjab-based party keeps winning a majority in the two regions — through active party work in the north, and through inducting political elites in the south — the basic skew in party incentives, and at the federal level will remain unchanged.

There are, however, two ways this can be rectified: the first is that if a new province is magically created by elite intervention, one can hope that the new provincial electorate would gradually adapt to a more regional political economy, and reject proxy rule by the north. As an incremental process it may produce the desired effect, but only after a considerable amount of time.

The second, more sustainable, way is if the PPP, and current provincial autonomy movements in the south, step up their efforts to engage, organise, and socialise the electorate on region-specific issues. This would most likely ensure different voting outcomes, and hence induce a clearer distinction from the north. More importantly, it will finally force the current ruling party in the province to engage with the electorate beyond its current comfort zone.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2014