Politics of Federalism in Pakistan
By Mehrunnisa Ali
Royal Book Company, Karachi
ISBN: 978-9694075273
205pp.

Politics of Federalism in Pakistan by Mehrunnisa Ali is a critical study of the difficulties this country had to face in the making of the three constitutions — of 1956, 1962 and 1973 — we have had.

Yet, as the author points out, one reason why federalism triumphed in each case is because of a unique asset Pakistan has: its “federal society.” No wonder then that, despite the ethnic, regional and geographical challenges involved in drafting the basic law, the constitution-makers retained federalism in all three documents.

Unbelievable as it sounds, federalism had its opponents as late as the last century, with a scholar such as English political theorist and economist Harold Laski saying that federalism was unable to cope with the tempo of life developed by modern capitalism. Similarly, British lawyer Ivor Jennings opined that “nobody would have a federal constitution” if it could be avoided, while academic and historian James Bryce said federalism was “a transitory step toward governmental unity.”

Peculiar is the comment by scholar of politics Anthony H. Birch, whose books include The British System of Government and Nationalism and National Integration. Federalism, he says, “is a concept which has no fixed meaning; its meaning in any particular study is defined by the student in a manner [that] is determined by the approach which he wishes to make to his material.”

A revised and enlarged second edition of a book looks at the reasons why federalism has been a feature of each of the country’s three constitutions and what can be done to smooth out its problems

Yet, contrary to the opinion by the scholars, federalism works successfully in countries such as the United States and Canada, and many Afro-Asian countries — Comoros, Ethiopia, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania — have chosen to go federal. In Pakistan, as early as 1949, Liaquat Ali Khan, the country’s first prime minister, declared that a federal form of government was a dictate of Pakistan’s geography.

A federal polity involves, among other things, a division of powers between the federal government and the constituent units and, in Pakistan’s case, it was not an easy task for the politicians to develop a consensus.

The makers of the 1956 constitution had to put up with a harsh reality: the most populous province, East Pakistan, had a small area, whereas the other four provinces situated a thousand kilometres away had a much larger territory. This meant East Pakistan would always have a majority in parliament — something the four other provinces conjoined territorially resented because of their larger territory, greater natural resources and higher contributions to revenue.

Yet, the politicians, many of whom were Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s comrades during the Pakistan movement and were well versed with law and constitution, came up with a workable solution. The country would be a federation of two provinces: East Pakistan and the four provinces in the west merged into one, and both would have equal representation in parliament. This came to be known as the “parity principle”, which defined the relationship between the two ‘wings’. In the consolidated West Pakistan, Punjab had 57 percent of the population. This created pressures within West Pakistan.

Full of compromises, the constitution was adopted in 1956 after what Professor Ali, author of the book under review, calls “much wrangling among the provinces.” This led to political instability, which finally ended when the country had its first martial law regime in 1958.

The constitution was abrogated, and the strongman, Gen (later Field Marshal) Ayub Khan not only preferred a presidential form of government, but also went for indirect elections to parliament and the presidency. Yet, despite the phenomenal economic development and the stability provided by the Ayub regime, popular agitation led to his ouster. This was followed by elections in 1970, the results of which emphasised the ethnic character of the divide between the two provinces.

Avoiding the details of the 1971 tragedy, let us focus instead on the constitution enacted in 1973. It is federal in character and, despite two military interventions, has shown resilience, flexibility and workability.

With the prime minister as chief executive, the constitution is parliamentary in character and has a bicameral legislature, with the upper house giving equal representation to the four provinces. More significantly, an irritant in any federal scheme — the division of powers — has been adequately dealt with and several amendments by the parliament have served to address the constituent units’ grievances.

The fourth prime minister of Pakistan, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, presenting the Constitution Bill in the central legislature. The bill was passed on Feb 29, 1956, and marked Pakistan’s transition from a British dominion to a republic | Dawn file photo
The fourth prime minister of Pakistan, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, presenting the Constitution Bill in the central legislature. The bill was passed on Feb 29, 1956, and marked Pakistan’s transition from a British dominion to a republic | Dawn file photo

For instance, the 18th amendment, adopted in 2010, widened the quantum of provincial autonomy by abolishing the concurrent list, thus giving the provinces greater autonomy in financial matters. This served to enhance the provinces’ extremely limited taxation sources, though there has been criticism that the provinces had failed to fully utilise the ‘concessions’ given by the 18th amendment.

However, as Professor Ali says, even though the three constitutions were federal in character, they proved to be “non-federal in practice”, because of all federal governments’ tendency to “centralise the state” by administrative means, which gave Islamabad greater powers in matters of law and order, especially where Islamabad felt centrifugal forces were gaining strength.

The growth of “centrifugal forces” — a euphemism for separatist tendencies — is a subject to which the author keeps returning. Because of “the growing development gap between the federating units”, the author believes the “unifying force of religion and fear of [a] common enemy (India) became weaker.” Thus, federalism has been “the only feasible device for maintaining equilibrium between the centripetal and centrifugal forces.”

There were unhealthy traditions from the very beginning. For instance, in 1954, then governor general Ghulam Mohammad dismissed Khawaja Nazimuddin’s government without recourse to the constituent assembly, which too he dissolved early the following year.

Similarly, even when generals such as Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf didn’t abrogate the constitution, they made amendments with the help of rubber-stamp parliaments. For instance, Gen Zia added a new clause — 58 2(b) — which authorised the president to dissolve the assembly and order fresh elections, even if the prime minister enjoyed a parliamentary majority. This clause was abolished by a subsequent democratic government, but Gen Musharraf restored it.

That a subsequent democratic government abolished this clause again and the constitution today is parliamentary and democratic in character, is a tribute to the resilience shown by the 1973 document, which was framed by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government under most difficult post-1971 circumstances.

Two chapters — ‘Measures Ensuring Federal-Regional Equation’ and ‘Federalism and Cultural Pluralism’ — summarise the author’s views on the constant tussle between the federal and provincial governments and suggest a solution. According to her, the tradition of a powerful centre, established in Pakistan’s formative years, continued during the operation of the 1956 constitution and remained a basic feature of the 1962 and 1973 documents.

The growing regionalism, Ali notes, could be contained, first, by creating “conditions conducive to the operation of the federal polity” and second, by “controlling those forces which have increased provincialism in the country.”

Ali believes officers of the elite Central Superior Services (CSS) are a major source of power in federal hands because they occupy key positions and are responsible to the federal government. One solution she has in mind is to have more provincial government officers on committees involved in development plans.

Ali is the author of a number of books, including the monumental Jinnah on World Affairs: Selected Documents, 1908-1948 and Facets of Jinnah: Personality and Leadership. The book under review here, a revised and enlarged second edition, deals in detail with the challenges Pakistan had to face in finally enacting a constitution that is parliamentary and federal. It is a quotable book.

The reviewer is Dawn’s External Ombudsman and an author

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 30th, 2023

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