The 18th hole

May 01 2020

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

THE PTI government at the centre has used its huge differences with the PPP’s Sindh setup during the Covid-19 pandemic to bring the issue of the 18th Amendment to the fore. There appears to be a concerted effort, led by the apparently recharged Asad Umar, to prove the inevitability of opening the debate about the 18th Amendment, which has been celebrated by many in this country as an outcome of collective wisdom of the ‘democratic forces’— a euphemism often used for politicians relatively free from the influence of outside forces.

Right from its passage the 18th Amendment has been defended and guarded by the PPP as a miraculous creation in the history of struggle for provincial rights. Indeed, the PPP did play a pivotal role in the making of the amendment and in subsequent years, and has been receiving praise for being so instrumental in providing the country with a debate so basic and crucial to its existence.

The presumption for long has been — and it is based on evidence of how some groups have been particularly troubled by this piece of basic law — that the amendment is the fundamental dividing point in the country. It defines the divide between those in favour of centralisation of power and those supporting devolution through politicians as elected representatives.

Some PTI supporters have been clamouring for a return to centralisation. For instance, in Lahore an old face in the Imran Khan camp this week called passionately for a return of the agriculture sector to the federal government from the provinces. The gentleman gave the example of many countries to back his argument, obviously secure in the knowledge that agriculture in Pakistan’s context was a sector whose return to the original managers could entail a process in allied areas that would change the entire complexion of the provincial vs centre discussion.

The PPP politicians for now are hiding behind the simple argument that there cannot be any change in the 18th Amendment.

This is one plank of the push to lay open the ‘inadequacies’ of the 18th Amendment. On another plane, the raiders backed by Islamabad hit at the heart of the system supposedly enshrined in the ideology that gave birth to the concepts of provincial autonomy. There has been incessant and valid criticism of how those very people who have been demanding rights for themselves have been found so wanting when it comes to passing on authority and power to the governance level below them.

The provincial governments have been too jealous to share power with the local governments, each province having to deal with its own peculiar set of circumstances. This is an area the political parties will find difficult to defend, just as the PPP and some other vocal 18th Amendment supporters find it increasingly tough to project the issue as one that pitted politicians as a whole against those who have been so reluctant to empower them.

The PTI is not an invisible group that would not want to appear too conspicuous or want to operate from the shadows. It is a political party with numbers to flaunt in the face of an opponent it is keen to defeat in full public view. It has allies. It has the ability to gather more political support, against those suffering already because of the long years of the campaign to discredit them. The campaign against the ‘inadequate’ 18th Amendment could well be poised to win over opposition politicians in a situation where so many opposition political parties are stuck in the middle looking to be rescued by agents who can guarantee political security for them.

Mian Iftikhar Hussain from the ANP has spoken about his determination to stand by the 18th Amendment. There are maybe a few other voices that have tried to warn the ruling parties against any kind of adventurism. By and large, this remains the PPP’s article of faith to defend. That’s the kind of isolation that the doctors would have advised Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to avoid, but which the PPP leader has little control over. What he can perhaps concentrate on improving are his arguments over and above the valuable emotional outbursts he is most likely to showcase in public.

BBZ’s basic rallying point, it seems, continues to be helped by those PTI representatives in Sindh who are bent upon highlighting the need for social distancing between urbane officials and their rugged uninitiated subjects in the interior. BBZ must have high hopes of striking a chord with his voters when he says that he will not allow anyone to touch the 18th Amendment. He might just elicit a few ‘jeay Bhutto’ chants with his rhetoric about filling jails over any attempt at tinkering with this proud PPP creation. He can do better.

The PPP politicians for now are hiding behind the simple argument that there cannot be any change in the 18th Amendment. They say there can be no discussion on the issue because an amendment cannot be passed as there can’t be a consensus in parliament. Simple. But what if we reverse the equation? There cannot be an amendment and consensus because you are not allowing talk.

The sooner the PPP leadership begins to prepare for the real argument the better. Slogans about being victimised may continue on the side as a political need or even as a valid question about how the party has been characterised by some powers. However, it is vital for BBZ to have a counter argument to the arsenal the PTI raiders of the forbidden constitutional territory have been throwing at the 18th Amendment.

You can act adamant and proud and play the victim card for a period of time, but ultimately, no party, certainly not a party such as the PPP which is so eager for patrons and blessings for some kind of redemption in national politics, can shy away from dialogue. BBZ can quietly confirm this from the experience of his very accommodating father. Once a leader has shown an inclination for reconciliation and dialogue, he cannot quite turn back those turning up at his door to have a chat about something important that they think needs fixing.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2020