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Updated March 25, 2018


THE danger is greater when the goal is bigger, the aim wider. And the goal just became a whole lot bigger. It started with Nawaz, but now it’s out there — the boys want more.

A whole lot more.

Chicken or egg — did the get-Nawaz plan spawn greater dreams or was get-Nawaz just the first stage of an already greater dream? — doesn’t really matter when both chicken and egg are being hunted.

From Panama to the 18th Amendment — you can’t make this stuff up. Then again, maybe it does make a kind of sense. If you’re going to go all this way to oust the biggest player in politics, you may as well pick up a few other gains.

Constitutional stuff is hard to decipher and it becomes all the more complicated when both sides lie. Or at least hide why they want what they want.

But why the 18th?

Constitutional stuff is hard to decipher and it becomes all the more complicated when both sides lie. Or at least hide why they want what they want.

The 18th is vast: more than a third of the Constitution amended; 17 federal ministries and divisions abolished; the concurrent list abolished; more than 61,000 federal employees made redundant and transferred; trillions of rupees at stake; and on and on.

The 18th was massive and complex in every way, but its animating spirit was a simple one: decentralisation.

And it was there that it was botched.

Forget the boys for a minute. A general wants centralisation like a politician wants votes and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that. It is what it is.

But the story of decentralisation via the 18th is also the story of why it attracts righteous anger, and why it remains weak and vulnerable to anti-democratic assault.

The 18th was mostly good law done in a horrible way. And some important parts of the 18th, like abolishing the concurrent list, had little to do with better governance or the interests of the people.

The worst thing about the 18th was procedural. It was debated and created in total secrecy by a small parliamentary committee headed by Raza Rabbani.

If you can’t remember any public debate or parliamentary scrutiny, that’s because there was none. The 26-member committee went clause by clause through the Constitution to decide what had to be changed and the party bosses outside the committee had the final say.

It was profoundly undemocratic, but the patina of parliamentary consensus and the need for a democratic win at the time meant everyone looked the other way. But the demands of secrecy and urgency had an impact.

Urgency meant the implementation phase was never taken seriously. A toothless implementation committee was created and its work wrapped up in a year.

Chucking to the provinces a whole array of new responsibilities without preparing the provinces for those new responsibilities had a predictable effect:

The better-resourced, relatively better-governed province, like Punjab, performed better than the under-resourced, underprepared province — pick whichever province, according to your political preference.

Secrecy, meanwhile, meant the 18th was stuffed with things that did not have much to do with the acceptable aim of decentralisation.

The concurrent list, for example, was abolished. It basically was 47 subjects where if federal and provincial legislation clashed, the federal legislation would hold sway.

Seemingly technical, the issue came to life when it was realised that abolishing the concurrent list could mean five different criminal law codes, criminal procedures and evidence laws in the country — the four provinces and Islamabad.

Or five different medical licensing boards. Or five different higher education standards. Or five different environmental regimes.

Some of it was rescued by making special provisions or tossing the issue into the Council of Common Interests. But most of the distortions were retained.

The historical detour is necessary because it peels back other — and if you’re one of the boys, less salutary — motives behind the Amendment.

The 18th has many undeniably democracy-enhancing aspects, but it was also rooted in the fear of a big centre.

For all politicians, a big centre means fear of what the boys can do. And for the smaller provinces, a big centre means fear of what Punjab can do.

Maybe some of the politicians involved in the 18th were looking to which services are best delivered by which tier of the state, federal, provincial or local, but most of them saw the 18th as a hedge against a dominant centre — which attracts martial law or Punjab’s heavy hand.

And if that’s your goal, what’s the best way to do it?

Starve the federal beast, by diverting as much money as possible away from the centre, and chop of its limbs, by transferring to the provinces as many responsibilities and duties as possible.

The passage of time has tested in the real world the degree of the politicians’ actual democratic commitment under the guise of the 18th Amendment. It has not been pretty.

Devolution — local governments — has been forced by the Supreme Court. Once the politicians had consolidated power in the provinces, where political parties are best organised and most powerful, they lost interest in the democratising goal.

Local governments created only reluctantly because of Supreme Court pressure are dysfunctional in all the provinces.

And the massive devolution of power to the provinces under the 18th is mostly underutilised. Sindh has done reasonably on provincial tax collection, Punjab maybe in lower education and KP in a smattering of legislative areas.

But the overall record is poor.

The boys have their reasons to attack the 18th. But it’s the politicians that have left it weak and vulnerable.

The writer is a member of staff.
Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2018