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A divisive debate

March 29, 2018

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AS if the people of crisis-torn Pakistan did not have their plate full of intractable problems, they are now being dragged into a dangerous controversy over the 18th Amendment. The call to undo the amendment of 2010 and the NFC award of 2009 obviously means revival of the unitary form of government that had inexorably led to the state’s dismemberment.

The 18th Amendment was only a modest step towards establishing a genuine federation and the NFC award was designed to strengthen the federating units’ finances. Both objectives are derived from Pakistan’s foundational premises.

Pakistan was always meant to be a federation. All constitutional proposals, from the Objectives Resolution and Basic Principles Committee’s (BPC) three reports to the constitutions of 1956 and 1973, except for the Ayub constitution, described the Pakistan state as a federation.

However, the establishment of a federation was not easy as neither the political leaders nor the bureaucracy had the necessary experience. Unable to deal properly with the language agitation in the eastern wing, the power struggle within the Punjab Muslim League, the separation of Karachi from Sindh, the support to Qayyum Khan’s rule in the then NWFP, and the pro-autonomy stirrings in Balochistan, both partners — the political class and the bureaucracy — in rule tended to use the provinces as the central government’s vassals.

Those who oppose federalism by advocating a strong centre have never offered a properly argued brief.

They also acquired the power to sack the provincial governments and used it thoughtlessly, especially after the Jugtu Front’s victory in East Bengal. With the passage of time the central leaders and the bureaucracy developed a vested interest in sustaining a unitary form of government. Subsequently, they found support in some powerful quarters.

The military revealed its aversion to federalism when Ayub Khan, while adapting the abrogated constitution of 1956 to his scheme of things, dropped the terms ‘federation’ and ‘federal government’ from his 1962 constitution; the state was described as a ‘republic’ and the federal government became the ‘central government’, Although Yahya Khan and the military rulers that followed him restored the word ‘federation’ in their constitutional plans there is little evidence to suggest that the security forces have reconciled themselves to the logic of federalism.

The merchant community, brought into politics by Ayub Khan, shared his preference for a strong centre to duly empowered provinces. And the religio-political groups implicitly joined them because they have always supported a single authority in the land with absolute powers.

All of these anti-federal tendencies were reflected in the deliberations of the all-parties parliamentary committee set up to deal with the long-pending issue of provincial autonomy. Each ‘concession’ to the federating units, including the abolition of the concurrent list and replacing NWFP with a decent name for that province, was reported to have been contested. The moves to purge the constitution of Ziaul Haq’s extra-democratic insertions were successfully resisted by his faithful followers. Those standing for greater provincial autonomy accepted for the sake of unity much less than they wanted. The 18th Amendment was thus a shining example of political progress by consensus.

The issue clearly is whether a movement towards establishing a genuine federation is contrary to the national interest or whether it will better serve the ideal of national good.

Unfortunately, those who oppose federalism by advocating a strong centre have never offered a properly argued brief. Their main contention has been that in the interest of stability, state power should be exercised at a single, high level and not at four or more subsidiary levels, and that ministers belonging to parliament and bureaucrats belonging to the superior services are inherently capable of acting more wisely than their poorer country cousins. An additional argument is that the provinces have failed to fully benefit from the devolution of power under the 18th Amendment.

This defence of a strong centre will not pass scrutiny even by the lowest court in the country. The qualities attributed to the central patriarchs reek of indefensible snobbery. The cost Pakistan has paid for maintaining a strong centre is known to all. The Ayubian strong centre not only pushed East Bengal out of the state, it also alienated all provinces and territories except Punjab. That the capital-based ministers and bureaucrats are better judges of what lies in the domain of the provinces and local government is a fallacy few will buy.

While the central administration is by its very nature incapable of appreciating the needs of the people living far beyond its reach, the inefficiency for which the provincial or local authorities are blamed can be removed by experience and training. Above all, the opponents of federalism repudiate the foundational premises of Pakistan and the imperatives of a pluralist society.

The advocates of a federal set-up, on the other hand, have an irrefutable case. The whole Pakistan Movement was built on the pledge to establish a federation of autonomous and sovereign units. Since the provinces (the homelands of fairly mature nations/nationalities), existed before the state of Pakistan was born (and it was created by their choice), it is for them to decide how much of power and resources they would surrender to the federal authority. And let us not talk of national interest as all powerful groups have defined national good according to their own narrow interests, and often merely in terms of their convenience.

No constitution is valid for all times. After some years it should be necessary to move beyond the 18th Amendment and give greater authority to the provincial and local governments because power is most efficiently used from as close a proximity to the subject as possible, and this is also a barrier to corruption.

But let all this lie in the future. If the debate on federalism and the NFC award is continued at the present juncture in Pakistan’s life and influential figures take sides, the resultant division and polarisation of the people will do no good to the country.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2018