Case for federalism

Published December 3, 2022
The writer is the founder-chairman of Dialogue: Pakistan, a local think tank.
The writer is the founder-chairman of Dialogue: Pakistan, a local think tank.

THE recent rally of the PTI chairman in Rawalpindi was notable for a variety of reasons. Above all, it revealed the frenetic workings of a mind in the grip of an idée fixe: power. In the wake of the customary animosity or hit list, one front was closed and another opened up.

A politics of agitation had ended, giving way to a politics of virtuosity. Street had suddenly ceded to parliament. Mass resignations from the two provincial assemblies in Punjab and KP, controlled by the PTI, were on the cards.

A number of observers waxed eloquent about the ingenuity of the move. The former cricketing icon was lauded for his political skill. It was, though, all too apparent that, by Nov 26, the PTI chairman had actually exhausted all his options and that a particular official appointment, central to his strategy, had already been made and he was left with his last card.

Back-patting aside, it is important to recognise the realities of the situation. The political gambit in question must be seen for what it really is: a final bid by the PTI to wrest power, at all costs, from the federal government.

The political gambit must be seen for what it is.

The move to resign from or disband the assemblies, smacks — typically — of political opportunism. Granted that our political lexicon has been expanded, it must, however, surely be admitted that the privileging of politics as play necessarily implies that the interests of the federation itself are being made, for no very good reason, to take a back seat.

The 18th Amendment, conferring varieties of autonomy on the country’s provinces, has suddenly — and somewhat unilaterally — taken centre stage.

One is reminded of what the PTI head himself declared not long ago in a late-night televised broadcast which amounted to a threat relating to the stability of the federation. By a curious irony, his words seem — disquietingly — to ring truer, albeit in a different sense, today than they did then.

Specific constitutional arguments aside, it matters that we see that we run the risk, under the present circumstances, of subverting the federal principle itself in the name of federalism.

We are all aware of the issue of a balance between the federating units and the federation and the fact that this is crucial. What we seem to be forgetting today, however, is the fact that there should also properly be a community of purpose among the federating units.

No one province in the federation, whether Punjab or KP, has the right, in other words, either to impose its individual will on any other province or to act in a manner prejudicial to the interests of any other province. To consider doing so is to think in hegemonistic rather than, properly speaking, federal terms.

That, in so many words, was the statement being made, about the PTI head, at the sizable rally of Nov 30, by the chairman of the PPP as he spelt out his party’s traditional commitment to the federation. It is entirely relevant that the 18th Amendment was passed by none other than the PPP government of the day.

It can legitimately be argued that both the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan are faced today with force majeure in the shape of the ecological disaster that recently struck them and that neither province is consequently in a position at present to hold elections.

That puts the whole matter of dissolution of the assemblies in Punjab and KP, followed by elections in the two provinces in question. Any such move would only prove discriminatory and prejudice the outcome of subsequent elections in the two remaining provinces, striking at the very principle binding the federal whole.

Democracy in a country such as ours, with its given social and economic conditions, cannot, in any case, be taken to amount to a mere electoral drill but has to be allowed to be a system of comprehensive consequence.

Many of us have still not forgotten the spectacle of democracy, literally and figuratively, behind bars during the previous government’s abortive rule. Civil liberties were suspended. Inflation was the result of merely somewhat cavalier economic improvisation.

The existing coalition is in place precisely because of the failure of the former government to follow up on its utopian promises and run the government or manage the economy efficiently.

As for the impression that the star sportsman of yore has come of age politically, we have no option but to hedge our bets. His somewhat generalised and embryonic libertarian vision is reason enough.

It is important for us all to bear in mind that democratic freedom, especially in a federal set-up, does not have to do with the mere will of a hypothetical majority but is a far more widespread and complex affair.

Freedom, in any case, is an esoteric phenomenon. It is not built into a particular system but has to be felt to be there. It is not a merely large idea trumpeted at populist rallies but, rather, a subtle atmosphere, an air, an undefined space.

The writer is the founder-chairman of Dialogue: Pakistan, a local think tank.

Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2022

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