Published Apr 08, 2018 06:47am

Delimitation & identity politics

Tahir Mehdi

THE relationship between the sociocultural identity of voters and their voting patterns in Pakistan is intriguing. Political parties attempt to rally voters along linguistic, tribal, caste/ biradari and religious or sectarian lines and superimpose on them the promise of economic development and good governance. For some parties, identity politics offers greater electoral capital. However, one can never be sure what works better than the other in a specific election for a particular candidate.

It is even more difficult to see identity politics making its way to the delimitation of constituencies. But there has been one exception — the politics of the MQM, as it has always exclusively represented the Mohajir community of urban Sindh.

The Mohajir identity is perhaps the sole marker of its kind that could overtly express itself in the delimitation of constituencies. The delimitation commission formed for the 1970 general elections said in its report that “refugees were given representation in Karachi, Hyderabad, Multan, Lyallpur [now Faisalabad] and Dhaka to keep them intact and [to ensure] homogeneity of the population of the constituency as far as possible”. The commission did not generally consider biradari-based distinctions as sacrosanct. However, it made an exception when delimiting a constituency in Gujrat that fell in an area inhabited by the Gujjar and Rajput communities.

Apart from Karachi, identity politics has been operating below the surface.

The next delimitation, under the Delimitation Act 1974 after the passage of the 1973 Constitution, however, refused to consider proposals to preserve the ‘settler’ and ‘local’ status of the population in making the constituencies contiguous. The commission told the objectors that these distinctions were not in sync with the national interest.

This was decried by leaders of the Mohajir community. As the latter was generally opposed to the PPP, Gen Zia placated it when he arbitrarily added seven more seats in the National Assembly, whose strength was set at 200 members by the Constitution, and gave two of these to Karachi. This continued until the next delimitation carried out by the next military ruler.

By the time of the 1998 census, the Mohajir share in Karachi had gone below the 50 per cent mark. It is likely to have gone down further in the 2017 census, but the MQM currently occupies 32 of the 42 provincial seats in the metropolis though it has failed to attract other communities. This would hardly have been possible without drawing up constituencies in a manner that favoured the party.

The Supreme Court had observed, while hearing a constitutional petition in 2010, that the way the boundaries of administrative units and electoral constituencies in Karachi are demarcated is helping territorialise communities instead of creating an environment that is conducive for different communities to live together in peace and harmony. It had asked the authorities to delimit Karachi again and the Election Commission of Pakistan did undertake a limited exercise but could not do so afresh for many reasons.

Since language data from the latest census is not yet available, it is difficult to analyse the current delimitation of Karachi. If the commission has not given any weightage to language as “other cognate factors to ensure homogeneity in the creation of constituencies”, the next elections are likely to have a lasting impact on identity politics in the metropolis and the identity narrative inculcated by its main proponents.

Elsewhere in the country, identity politics has been operating below the surface. It does not overtly express itself in terms of electoral outcomes but it helps shape the discourse around elections. The proponents of this politics prey on any hints in electoral processes that could help them promote a narrative of victimisation of their group.

The Seraikis have always found themselves on the wrong side of delimitation, across the provinces. The Pakhtun encroachment of Dera Ismail Khan, which is predominantly Seraiki, has been more than visible. In the 1988 delimitation, the district was awarded one seat against a share of 1.56 seats and in Punjab, Dera Ghazi Khan and Rajanpur were collectively given three seats against a share of 3.89. In the 2002 delimitations, the average size of the national constituencies in southern Punjab was bigger than the ones in northern and central Punjab by 8.5pc. This strengthened the Seraiki narrative of being victimised by ‘Takht Lahore’ and the Punjab-dominant central state. The new delimitation proposals, however, have added an interesting twist.

D.I. Khan now has two of the most equal seats in KP while its Pakhtun neighbourhood has one of the most unequal seats in the country — Bannu is the largest and Tank the second smallest constituency in the country. The anomalies in size of the southern KP districts have not caused a negative spillover into non-Pakhtun D.I. Khan this time.

The same is witnessed in the case of the non-Pakhtun majority Hazara Division where two Hindko-speaking districts have unequal seats. This shows that inequality in constituency size can only be blamed on the arbitrary sizes of districts and not on active gerrymandering on the basis of the ethnicity and language of the constituents.

In fact, language and ethnicity as delimiting factors have figured in the ECP’s preliminary report only in the case of Balochistan where it has been used to justify the clubbing together of certain districts in a manner that has resulted in marked inequality in the size of constituencies.

The northern and central Punjab districts have lost 11 national seats, seven to other provinces, one to their own capital, Lahore, and three to the southern Punjab districts of D.G. Khan, Rajanpur and Muzaffargarh. The seats in southern Punjab are comparatively smaller too. In previous delimitations, there were 44 national constituencies in Punjab that were smaller than the provincial average by 5pc or more; 42 of these were in central and northern Punjab. But now there are 30 such seats and 24 of these fall in southern Punjab.

The current delimitation counters the Seraiki narrative of victimhood in the electoral arena. But will it lead to a reverse narrative in which central Punjab complains of ‘victimisation’? That will be interesting to watch though a lot will depend on the outcome of electoral contests in new constituencies and their interplay with other factors.

The writer is an independent researcher with an interest in elections and governance.

Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2018

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