Delayed Fata reforms

Updated February 09, 2017

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The long road to Fata reforms has veered off course again — and this time it appears to be a case of the PML-N putting politics ahead of policymaking and the public interest.

The painstaking work of the Fata reforms committee headed by the prime minister’s adviser Sartaj Aziz was to have reached its much-awaited culmination this week with the tabling of the final reforms package before the federal cabinet for final approval. Instead, at the very last moment, the item was dropped from the cabinet agenda with no reasons given and no indication of how long the postponement will last. The move caused an immediate and rightful furore among Fata parliamentarians and appears to have sent ripples of concern across the Fata region. The Fata reforms committee has produced a set of recommendations that is by no means ideal and leaves a great deal to be fleshed out and followed up in the implementation phase. But it remains a foundational document and the broad contours of the plan to politically, legislatively and administratively merge Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has drawn support from a wide cross section of Fata’s leaders and society. In short, the reforms committee has a road map that is ready to be implemented, but approval has been now withheld by the government.

Disappointing as the delay is, the reason for it is more troubling. Through the entire consultation process, two figures have largely been opposed to the work of the reforms committee and the inexorable conclusions it was drawing, especially the merger of Fata with KP. JUI-F supremo Maulana Fazlur Rehman and PkMAP leader Mahmood Achakzai appear to believe that a merger would damage their political standing with their respective bases and further marginalise them in a combined unit. The two leaders are certainly entitled to their opinion and political calculations, but what this appears to be doing is squeezing their political ally, the PML-N, at a time when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is facing pressure over the Panama Papers. Certainly, the greater blame lies with Mr Sharif for succumbing to what amounts to mild political blackmail and postponing the much-needed reforms for short-term reasons.

All three of the protagonists in this unhealthy democratic spectacle ought to reconsider their positions. For Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Mr Achakzai, the question is whether they can step back from reflexive opposition to the reforms committee and consider what is in the long-term interest of Fata and KP. For Mr Sharif, a historic opportunity beckons, akin to the 18th Amendment passed by the last parliament. It is the Supreme Court that will decide the legal fate of Mr Sharif. As for the political fate of the PML-N, with a majority in parliament and a governance agenda of its own choosing at the moment, the unreasonable objections of minor political allies should not be allowed to dominate.

Published in Dawn February 9th, 2017