FOR the locals, the short summer of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) may not be as vibrant and promising this year. While on the one hand, the coronavirus pandemic has badly hit tourism in the region, on the other, the upcoming regional assembly election, which many thought would add some exuberance to life, has been postponed.
Political parties in GB are not happy with the decision of postponing the election by the GB Election Commission and view the move with suspicion. There is a popular perception that another king’s party is in the making and the election schedule will not be announced until the ongoing process of political engineering is complete. Some political observers in GB also see a bigger design behind the delay of the electoral process and link it to a major constitutional shift for the region.
In the election schedule issued on July 2, the GB Election Commission had declared Aug 18 as polling day. But later, election commission officials regretted that preparations for managing the polling in August were still incomplete. They declared that the commission needed to delay the election for at least two months so that appropriate arrangements could be made. Although the political parties have started their electoral campaigns, the scale of activity does not match the political zeal of the region, mainly because of Covid-19 concerns and the prevailing uncertainty about the election.
Politics in Azad Kashmir and GB is mainly steered by the power corridors in Islamabad. This is a general belief that the ruling party in Islamabad will form the government in these regions. The different election timeframes of these regions from national polls in Pakistan make political engineering easy for gaining the required numbers in the local legislative assemblies. This time, the ruling party in Islamabad, the PTI, was not well prepared for the GB election and many anticipated that that may break the myth that only Islamabad’s favourites have the ‘right’ to form the government there. Against this backdrop, as many in GB believe, the process of forming a king’s party has been accelerated during the last few weeks. Electable and strong candidates from the PPP, PML-N, Tehreek-e-Jafria and JUI-F are ‘joining’ the PTI. Though it yet remains to be seen how the incoming heavyweights will make a difference for the PTI, political manoeuvring is already sending a negative message to the people of GB, which is a politically sensitive region.
Many in GB believe the process of forming a king’s party has been accelerated during the last few weeks.
Since independence, the people of GB have been demanding that they be completely integrated with Pakistan and become a province. But this has not been accepted by Islamabad as GB is seen as part of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. To compensate for not integrating GB, Islamabad has taken several political initiatives during the last 70 years, but nothing has proved equal to full integration of the region into Pakistan. This has created a sense of alienation among the educated youth of the area and triggered sub-nationalist sentiments in the region.
The Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order of 2009 was a major step towards mainstreaming the region, but the GB Legislative Assembly has demanded full provincial status. The Supreme Court judgement of Jan 7, 2019, for providing GB provisional representation in parliament, subject to the settlement of the Kashmir dispute, has provided a veiled cover for provincial status on a provisional basis. The PML-N government introduced the GB Order 2018, but it was not sufficient to provide fundamental rights to the people of the region. However, the ruling PTI outright rejected the possibility of introducing any amendment to the Constitution that was needed to give Gilgit-Baltistan a provincial status even on a provisional basis. Prime Minister Imran Khan has rejected the proposal on the basis of the same old excuse that such arrangements will undermine the Kashmir dispute and Pakistan’s international obligations.
It is not sure on what grounds and with what manifesto the PTI will contest the election in GB. The corruption mantra will not be an attractive one in a region that has very limited financial resources and control. Secondly, identity is a major issue for the people of the region, and it is linked with the political grievances of the people. Development and a proper share in CPEC is the second major demand of the people of GB.
As the king’s party is being created, rumours are being spread through local media outlets that the government is seriously considering the possibility of introducing some provisional constitutional arrangement for the region before the election; this is also being cited as the reason for the delay in the election. However, no such considerations are being heard in Islamabad.
Against the CPEC backdrop, a few observers think that Pakistan can take such an initiative to consolidate its constitutional position in the region. It will address the apprehensions of Chinese investors as their investment would get proper legal cover under Pakistan’s legal jurisdictions. Azad Kashmir can protest such a move as they consider GB a part of their own area. There are also rumours that the government is preparing an amendment in Kashmir’s provisional constitution of 1974 under which Azad Kashmir will get more administrative and political powers. Political observers do not give weight to the perception that Pakistan will take such action under the influence of the Indian move to provoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir as Pakistan has taken legal and constitutional measures without compromising on the UN resolutions on Kashmir. For them, this could be purely an internal decision to bring all the territories under its constitutional, administrative and political domain. This is essential for addressing the grievances of the marginalised communities.
If these are not merely rumours or gimmicks for electoral purposes, nothing would be better for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2020