Balochistan politics

Published November 16, 2023
The writer is a public policy and development specialist from Balochistan.
The writer is a public policy and development specialist from Balochistan.

BALOCHISTAN has again captured the spotlight, courtesy of Nawaz Sharif’s strategic foray into the province to court electables from BAP and other parties in a bid to solidify PML-N’s position ahead of the polls. The influx of over two dozen electables into PML-N begs a critical evaluation of Islamabad’s approach towards Balochistan. The national discourse has almost always attributed the plight of Balochistan to its own predatory and corrupt political elite, particularly the tribal sardars. While Balochistan’s people generally agree with this assessment, they stress a crucial exception: these predatory elites owe their sustenance primarily to the patronage emanating from Islamabad.

The genesis of the predatory political behaviour of traditional elites in Balochistan can be traced to the tribal governance system of the British. Popularly known as the ‘Sandeman system’, the colonial frontier governance model corrupted tribal social structures and fortified the position of tribal sardars by extending to them patronage in exchange for performing specific administrative functions. Tribal sardars thus became integral to a two-way patron-client relationship, acting as both clients of the colonial state and patrons of their tribal subjects.

The postcolonial state perpetuated this policy of ‘indirect rule’ through the tribal sardars. Although the introduction of representative democracy opened avenues for commoners to enter the political arena, the de facto power of the sardars endured, courtesy of the patronage received from Islamabad. The Islamabad-sardar alliance symbolises a marriage of convenience, with the state providing patronage in return for sardars’ countering assertive Baloch nationalists and downplaying thorny issues straining Baloch-Islamabad ties.

Since Balochistan’s establishment as a province in 1970, it has predominantly witnessed rule by Islamabad-backed tribal elites. In the period from 1970 to 2023, Balochistan experienced civilian rule for only 28 years, with countrywide parties governing for approximately 22 years (82 per cent), leaving ethno-regional parties with a mere six years (18pc). Countrywide parties like the PML-N, PPP, and PTI have remained primary conduits for the traditional sardars and newly emerging electables, generally hailing from the mercantile class. They have switched political allegiances frequently. Despite their penchant for political nomadism, these turncoats find ready acceptance in the very parties they had deserted previously.

Ruling through electables has hindered parties’ organic growth.

In the current scenario, the influx of electables into the PML-N raises eyebrows about the party’s strategy for the restive province. Given the proclivity, and proven track record, of these electables to change political loyalties opportunistically, the PML-N leadership should prioritise the medium- and long-term goal of cultivating a genuine support base among the masses. Of all the parties, the PML-N should know better that these electables are trustworthy neither in the short nor medium term.

It was only in 2018 that the PML-N chief minister in Balochistan, Nawab Sanaullah Zehri, was deserted by more than two-thirds of his own party members in support of a no-confidence motion filed by the opposition. Requiring a simple majority (33 votes) to continue as Leader of the House, the PML-N, with 21 members in the provincial assembly, should have comfortably thwarted the motion with the support of coalition partners whose combined strength was 25. However, it couldn’t retain the loyalty of even nine out of 21 members and collapsed like a house of cards. Despite this experience, the PML-N leadership appears reluctant to learn from the past. The opportunistic and inconsistent behaviour of countrywide parties to­­wa­rds political turncoats ren­­­ders them susceptible to ex­­ternal ma­­­nipulation when political fortunes reverse.

This policy of ruling the province through electables has hindered the organic growth of political parties and fostered the growth of non-partisan, predatory political behaviour in the province.

Further, it has fostered and cemented patronage-based provision of public goods and services at the expense of systemic reforms and service delivery. Lastly, it has weakened the public accountability of elected representatives, who increasingly rely on state patronage rather than popular support to enhance their chances of re-election.

In conclusion, the embrace of proven turncoats carries damaging implications for both political culture and public service delivery. Moving forward, the countrywide parties and the ruling elite in Islamabad, at the minimum, must acknowledge their complicity in Balochistan’s crisis of political leadership rather than shifting the blame onto the province’s citizens.

The writer is a public policy and development specialist from Balochistan.

X: @rafiullahkakar

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2023

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