AFTER looking at the results of polls recently held in eight districts of upper Sindh can one predict that the new local governments will fare better than the previous ones? Opinion is divided.
Some are hopeful that the revival of local governments will lead to a meaningful devolution of political, administrative and financial powers, and hence better governance and civic amenities. Others fear that local governments would again crystallise the powers in the hands of local elites and bureaucracy.
Sceptics base their arguments on three premises: First, historically local governments have empowered local elites, rather than the common man, be it Ayub’s basic democracies, Zia’s local bodies, or Musharraf’s nazims. Given their influence over vast areas populated by various tribes, castes and communities, the feudal-tribal elites have dominated the local politics of rural Sindh.
A troika has been ruling rural Sindh since 2002.
Recent elections have also returned feudal-tribal patriarchy in most of the eight districts: Shikarpur, Kambar-Shahdadkot, Ghotki, Jacobabad, Kashmore-Kandhkot, Larkana, Khairpur and Sukkur. True, some important seats have been captured by the candidates belonging to the middle class in Larkana (city), Sukkur (city), Gambat and Dokri, but the feudal-tribal patriarchs are set to head five out of the eight district governments.
No wonder, feudalisation has received a spurt in Sindh. A new breed of ‘neo-feudals’ has sprung up from the ranks of politicians and bureaucrats. They have purchased or leased on favourable terms large tracts of public land.
Second, though feudalism in its classical form may no longer exist in Sindh as there are no fiefdoms worked by serfs, feudalism as a tool of political and social control continues to receive sustenance by the state and governments.
Agriculture remains untaxed; land reforms have proved ineffectual; nationalisation of land stands barred by the Sharia court; and feudalistic elements receive a lion’s share in all the governments — local, provincial and federal. Even during Z.A. Bhutto’s ‘socialist’ government, Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi — scion of a powerful landowning family — was the chief minister of Sindh.
Third, all the mainstream political parties, including the PPP, seem to have abnegated their social agendas. Blinded by expediency and pragmatism, they are courting powerful personages and influential families in order to use their clout for winning elections. As a result, few political parties ran their campaigns in the recent elections on social planks; and fewer still pleaded the case of peasants, women, religious minorities and other marginalised communities.
True, the local government law provides special seats for workers, women and religious minorities, but given the fact that the local governments are overwhelmingly dominated by upper-class politics, would these weaker and marginalised sections become so empowered as to impact the local legislation, policies or governance? The answer is likely to be in the negative.
Indeed, a troika consisting of bureaucrats, feudals and politicians has been ruling the roost in rural Sindh since 2002 when Musharraf revived local governments under a new ordinance and later when the PPP-led government co-opted the local elites, regardless of their political leanings, under the banner of ‘reconciliation’. Lack of institutional checks and the politics of ‘reconciliation’ allowed the troika to enjoy unbridled powers. As a result, the track record of the previous local governments (2002-2008) particularly in upper Sindh comprising these eight districts, was rather disastrous, be it in governance, law and order or social-sector performance.
Though numerous cases of corruption have been filed against the errant bureaucrats and politicians, the troika, unfortunately, remains as intact as ever, if not more powerful.
However, having said that, it must also be reckoned that for all its flaws and inadequacies, local government is essential for socio-political empowerment at the grass-roots level. In fact, local constituencies form the backbone of modern democracies because all ‘politics is local’; it is here that government policies are scrutinised by people whether by approval or rejection; and it is here people learn the ropes of politics.
Moreover, the recent elections have also produced many a promising sign: one-fourth of total seats have gone to independent candidates; average turnout was around 50pc, and in some districts even 70pc. Participation of women — in a feudal-tribal milieu — was also robust, at 40pc. And some powerful candidates have lost to ‘ordinary’ persons.
It is also reassuring that elections were held peacefully, barring the tragic killings of 12 persons in Daraza. But this incident should also serve as a wake-up call for the minders of security as it may cast its shadow on the next phase of the elections. Already, the PML-F has laid the blame for the Daraza killings at the doorstep of the provincial government, though the latter denies it. The increasing tension between the two parties bodes ill for public security and fairness of the polls.
The writer is a lawyer and an academic.
Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2015