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Balochistan on the boil again

January 06, 2018

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THERE is a concerted move to effect a change in the Balochistan government where, a few months ahead of the general election, a political sharing arrangement that has been in place for four and a half years is under threat.

The move became public with the resignation/sacking of cabinet member Sarfaraz Bugti, long seen as a civilian spokesman of the military-led security apparatus dominant in the province, who was one of the movers of the no-confidence motion against the chief minister.

After the 2013 general election, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and Mir Hasil Bizenjo’s National Party entered a power-sharing agreement where the CM’s tenure was divided into equal halves. The first half saw Dr Abdul Malik of the National Party in office, with Nawab Sanaullah Zehri assuming power for the final half.

Why the move to oust the elected chief minister via a no-confidence motion just six months ahead of an election?

The two parties were joined by a junior partner, the Mahmood Khan Achakzai-led Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party while the governor’s office was given to Mahmood Khan´s elder brother. With a nationalist Dr Abdul Malik (Baloch) in office, optimism sprouted for peace in Balochistan.

Throughout his tenure, Dr Malik continued to hint that some sort of contact had been established with the estranged Baloch leadership abroad and that a negotiated settlement was possible.

That optimism turned out to be unfounded as some of the hard-line Baloch leadership, with the exception of Brahmdagh Bugti, did not appear to warm to the idea of such a settlement and set tough pre-conditions for any talks, including the withdrawal of all military, paramilitary forces from the province.

Sources close to other separatist leaders suggested that where some of them were open to dialogue which could lead to a ‘respectable’ (face-saving) settlement, as they were also realising that an armed struggle was causing immense hardship to the people, the military — confident of its victory on the ground — scuttled the process.

While the whole truth about events being played out behind a curtain will remain elusive, the changes in Brahmdagh’s stance may substantiate the above sequence. In an interview to the BBC, he expressed his readiness for talks.

In fact, when he appeared flexible on the pre-condition of troop withdrawal, he was slammed by other separatist leaders, even though the separatist groups are not known to operate in tandem or coordinate their actions.

Nonetheless, rather than capitalise on what seemed like a rift between the main separatist leaders, Pakistani authorities appear to have acted with arrogant disdain, and no follow-up happened after an initial ice-breaking contact between Brahmdagh and a minister or two belonging to both provincial and central governments.

This turned out to be an own goal as by end 2016 Brahmdagh publicly expressed gratitude to Indian Prime Minister Modi for raising the Balochistan issue and also announced he and some of his associates would be applying for political asylum in India.

As this episode indicated, the civilian governments in both Quetta and Islamabad are quite powerless in key policy areas in Balochistan. So why then the move to oust the elected chief minister via a no-confidence motion just six months ahead of an election?

Currently, there are two main explanations doing the rounds in Quetta. The first relates to the obvious obsession of those hell-bent on denying Nawaz Sharif any quarter so that the ousted prime minister is unable to get a majority in the upper house of parliament in a few weeks.

In March, half the senators complete their six-year term and retire and their seats will be filled by the electoral colleges. In the current equation, of the 11 (seven general and two seats each for technocrats and women) Balochistan seats that will be up for grabs, PML-N and its allies are expected to pick up seven at least.

This number, coupled with the PML-N’s likely seats from Punjab and the federal capital, will give the party (plus its loyal allies) a simple majority in the Senate, a luxury it has not had in its entire current term in office.

If the PML-N’s Balochistan CM is toppled and his successor is more amenable to advising the governor to dissolve the assembly and similar actions are initiated by PML-N hostile governments in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the senate elections under the current set-up will become very difficult.

Knowledgeable observers say the Balochistan CM and some of his cabinet members have also facilitated the task of their opponents by alienating MPAs. They cite two examples to illustrate their point.

The first is of Sardar Akhtar Mengal, who is also a signatory to the no-confidence motion. “He is nobody’s toady, but the CM who also belongs to Khuzdar has starved Akhtar’s constituency of development funds and spent lavishly on his own.”

Then Development Minister Hamid Achakzai of the PkMAP is accused of diverting unlimited funds to his home district of Killa Abdullah-Gulistan. He is said to have spent nearly two billion rupees building over a hundred small dams there and neglected similar needs elsewhere.

Sanaullah Zehri’s fate lies in the (numerically decisive) hands of JUI-F and given his differences over the Fata merger plan with the federal government, Maulana Fazlur Rehman is playing hard to get. Let’s see who his party supports in the end.

If this situation was not enough of a muddle, another source referred to one more point of friction between CM Zehri and the ‘boys’. This is reportedly caused by the initiative taken by Zehri to restart talks with a foreign mining giant over the Reko Diq project.

The mining giant has already received a favourable verdict in international arbitration after former CJ Iftikhar Chaudhry had cancelled its contract during the tenure of chief minister Aslam Raisani. The ‘boys’, says the source, want to keep politicians away from it.

These power games are being played when the country needs internal cohesion against the backdrop of the US president’s belligerence towards Pakistan and a tense situation on both the eastern and western borders. Hopes for sanity seem to be fading fast.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2018