THE government finds itself battling on three fronts. Civil-military relations are said to be at their lowest ebb in years, a main opposition party is gearing itself to lay siege to the capital, and inter-provincial tensions over the distribution of federal resources and CPEC projects are escalating.
The first problem is recurring, and regardless of what many think about it, is largely beyond the control of this or any other civilian government. The second battle, that with Imran Khan on the other hand, is largely of the government’s own making. Seven months on from the Panama Papers leaks, the PML-N leadership has done little by way of finding a diplomatic, workable solution to a political problem. The PTI’s mobilisation may or may not be destabilising for the country, but in what’s often perceived as a winner-take-all political sphere, one can’t fault the opposition for trying to carve out an opening for itself. Just like everyone else in the vocation of politics, Imran Khan wants to be prime minister and he’ll do whatever it takes to undermine the incumbent’s popularity.
The third battle — that of CPEC’s distribution — appears to be the least pressing. There’s no major ethnic mobilisation taking place, and nationalist leaders in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are on relatively civil terms with Nawaz Sharif. The PTI government in KP speaks on the issue sporadically, but the party leadership’s Punjab-centric orientation makes it a weak candidate to carry the regionalist flag.
The corridor is a centralising force in Pakistan’s political system that places a lot of eggs in the federal government’s basket.
While the problem may seem the least pressing at this point, it is one that reflects a particularly deep, historical fracture in Pakistan: centre-province or centre-ethnicity relations. Any reasonable reading of Pakistan’s history will tell you that infighting between provincial elites and migrant leaders was the main cause of political stasis in the first few years after independence. It weakened the civilian dispensation, undermined democracy, and contributed to a centralised, bureaucratised state apparatus that ultimately fell into the hands of the military. The end result was further centralisation, and the exacerbation of regional disparities under Ayub Khan’s regime, which led to the secession of half the country.
The 18th Amendment has gone some way in resolving the issue of a centralised, disparity-exacerbating state at two levels. In the first instance, a considerable amount of administrative and fiscal autonomy does stand devolved to the provinces. The effects of this are partially visible: revenue authorities in Punjab and Sindh are aggressively finding new and hitherto untapped avenues for tax farming. All four provincial governments have set up energy companies to resolve the power crisis. KP, in particular, is pursuing a range of projects with multilateral and bilateral donors. To their credit, political elites based in the provinces are slowly learning to cope with greater authority.
At a secondary level, the ‘idea’ of an 18th Amendment has a visible impact on the country’s political culture. The fact that such a constitutional amendment was passed by consensus expands the idea of what is democratically possible in the minds of politicians and activists. Therefore, discursively, the 18th Amendment goes some way in fortifying faith in a federal system of government.
CPEC, however, is a game changer. This phrase is commonly used in one banal sense: so much investment coming in and Pakistan will surely surge to middle-income status on its back. In a slightly less obvious sense is the corridor’s game-changing design. CPEC is a state-to-state cooperation agreement. The governments of Pakistan and China are the ones deliberating over its modalities. At our end, multi-party conferences and the occasional chief ministerial-level meetings have no de jure authority over the actual projects. To put this in simpler terms, CPEC is a centralising force in Pakistan’s political system that places a lot of eggs in the federal government’s basket.
Part of the problem is because of how the civil and military leaderships have built up the almost heroic status of the corridor. Every statement by the national leadership harbours the country at the port of CPEC and all future possibility now appears to stem from Chinese money. Given this hyperbolic atmosphere, it is only logical that activists who’ve built their political careers over the rights of particular regions and ethnic groups would become extra aware of the possibility of missing out. The deep mistrust of centralising economic and political power, which has developed over the last seven decades, rears its head once again.
Some of the heightened concerns of provincial activists are fully justified. There is the uncertain fate of the western corridor, which on paper promised connectivity for regions languishing on Pakistan’s economic periphery. There is also the issue of a number of projects based in Gwadar that are often packaged as Balochistan’s share. Gwadar is, in practice, a federalised and increasingly globalised area. Its day-to-day control rests with the military and the Chinese companies operating its port. In most ways, it promises little and contributes nothing to the rest of the province.
While the Chinese embassy issues placating press statements, managing inter-provincial concerns and perceptions is not their job. It is the job of the federal government, which represents a province that is rightly or wrongly seen as the country’s local chauvinist. To this end, it has not done a very good job. Perhaps the biggest reason for this is because it has no incentive to do it. The Chinese are comfortable with the current design, and the ruling party’s own electoral incentives are centred in Punjab and thus require little to no consideration of other regions. As far as one can see, Nawaz Sharif does not hate other provinces or ethnicities. He just doesn’t have any reason to be magnanimous or considerate. CPEC may very well be an economic game changer, but there are increasing signs that, in this process, it will also unmask some very troubling political wounds.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2016