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South Punjab

January 24, 2013

DOWN to its current base in Bahawalpur, the idea of a new province in south Punjab has progressed some distance. Along the way it has won new backers and lost some. The PPP’s shift to reconcile Bahawalpur and Multan is significant. It gives greater purpose to the thrust, roping in politicians who wouldn’t earlier commit themselves to the initiative. Of course, the PML-N and its friends in other parties have not taken kindly to the initiative. The PML-N had once tried to use the Bahawalpur province bogey to counter the move for a Multan-centric ‘Seraiki suba’. Now it is staying away from a parliamentary committee that is deliberating upon a province which would include both Multan and Bahawalpur. The PML-N says the proceedings of the committee are unconstitutional while the counter-argument speaks of the need for doing one’s homework before the effort to make the required constitutional changes is undertaken. All this points to politics at its most basic, if crude is too offensive a term for our emotional politicians. An election is approaching and what we are witnessing is some urgent shoring up by parties in their ‘respective’ areas.

The PPP has chosen its area at the risk of conceding territory elsewhere. Once it has made this decision, it believes it has nothing to lose by appearing to be pursuing a southern Punjab province. While it understands the new province cannot — should not — be created without the assent of the Punjab Assembly where the PML-N is in a majority, it also knows the PML-N, wanting to protect its support base, will not join those deliberating upon a new province. One danger of this regional approach by two parties claiming a countrywide presence is that the issue will be sought to be resolved without a solid, well-thought-out debate. Already, the protagonists of the idea have decided to exclude some Seraiki-speaking areas from the south Punjab map to avoid complications. This could return to haunt today’s planners as unfinished business from a hasty bifurcation inspired by a general election and instigated by emotion.

There is also fear that this creation could lead to demands for similar divisions across Pakistan. That will be inevitable, whatever the stated basis for a new province, ethnic or administrative. South Punjab could well be the first one in a not so short queue but it may not be the destination for those demanding empowerment for the people at the grassroots. That empowerment will require even smaller units of governance, a local government that the politicians appear to have a consensus against.