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Playing with fire

THE establishment’s assault on the 18th Amendment and the NFC Award is not a matter of recent origin. It is the result of the ruling elite’s search over a considerably long time for a strategy to revive the highly centralised polity that authoritarian rulers, civil as well as military, in the past promoted and which was consistently opposed by democratic opinion.

The official spokesmen argue the 18th Amendment is not a revealed document that cannot be touched. Nobody has claimed to the contrary. Indeed, the Constitution as a whole is not a sacrosanct document. At best, it represents a consensus that cannot be trifled with by whim and caprice. The same is true about the 18th Amendment.

The significance of this amendment lies in the fact that it represents the first attempt at establishing a federation that Pakistan was supposed to be from the day the Lahore resolution was adopted. Consensus on the amendment was a compromise between federalists and advocates of a strong centre. Besides, the inheritors of Gen Zia’s mantle and the religio-political parties saw to it that all Zia’s interpolations were not repealed. The many opinions expressed by members of the parliamentary committee are on record.

Any attempt to strengthen the federal character of the state should be welcomed.

Thus any attempt to strengthen the federal character of the state should be welcomed by every democrat worth his salt. But that is not what the present denigrators of the 18th Amendment want. They want to deprive the federating units of administrative and financial gains, especially the latter, accruing to them under this amendment and the decade-old NFC award. This they consider necessary to reviving the pre-2010 all-powerful centre.

The establishment’s point of view was vaguely put by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi when he said that the provinces would have to sit down with the federation to review their relationship. Another important minister, Asad Umar, made two points. Firstly, he claimed everybody had realised that if the federation was weakened the provinces too would lose, meaning thereby that the provinces needed to revive the strong centre in their own interest. Secondly, he argued that the 18th Amendment needed to be reviewed to make up for its failure to carry the decentralisation process from the provinces to local bodies. To many, this line of argument will appear an echo of Ayub Khan’s rhetoric in praise of a strong centre supported by basic democracies. The 18th Amendment is also being attacked for preventing the transfer of Rs300 billion from the share of provinces to the federation via an NFC award. It seems necessary to recall how much Pakistan has suffered as a result of the rulers’ obsession with a strong centre.

From 1947 to 2010, Pakistan was administered (badly) as a unitary state in repudiation of the Lahore resolution, Dickey’s definition of federating units as federation’s coordinates and not its subordinates, contemporary wisdom and the state’s peculiar geography. An overbearing centre made a mockery of representative governance and the country’s state of affairs was described by a senior civil servant in a presentation at the Administrative Staff College as the state being at war with its people. As Ayesha Jalal noted, “Privileging the centre’s agenda at the expense of the regions created malfunctions in the political system.” The federation deprived the provinces of two taxes in 1948 and continued to expropriate provincial resources for its questionable policies. The result was that the eastern wing was irretrievably alienated from the state and in the western part a long-drawn-out campaign for provincial autonomy became the central issue in the struggle for a democratic dispensation.

Another costly result of arbitrary imposition of the centre’s agenda on the provinces was that the latter’s progress towards democratic management of their affairs was severely restricted. This handicap is visible to this day.

The 18th Amendment and NFC award of 2010 took a small step towards turning Pakistan into a genuine federation, the smallness of the step being determined by a compromise among diverse groups in parliament.

But the amendment was not fully implemented because of the federation’s bad faith. The process of decentralisation was obstructed by the central bureaucracy that never accepted the rise of provinces to power as federating units and their financial solvency. Resources continued to be diverted to meet the extravagant tastes of the centre.

As regards the argument in favour of local bodies’ empowerment, the issue has no relevance to the 18th Amendment. The plea follows the populist path adopted by all military rulers with a view to controlling the elected authorities at the central and provincial levels. The objective of decentralisation below the provincial level can be realised through provincial legislation as was done two decades ago. The PTI is controlling three provinces and we will see how much power it devolves to the local bodies.

The best course for Pakistan is to defer the debate on the 18th Amendment till times are conducive to extending the federal basis of the state. However, given the establishment’s extraordinary means to bring a weak and disparate opposition in line with its wishes it is not impossible that it may succeed in taking the country away from the federal principle. The result will be replacement of a supposedly voluntary union of federating units with a forced arrangement, like a marriage at gunpoint, with all the attendant hazards to state integrity.

Tailpiece: The government has been upgrading its image-makers. Shibli Faraz and Gen Asim Bajwa and a new principal information officer have replaced Firdous Ashiq Awan, a civilian with a PPP past, and at the National Command and Operations Centre Zafar Mirza and Gen Afzal, who knew what they were talking about, have been put under the command of all-purpose minister Asad Umar. Such changes are not considered good for any government because they invite disconcerting questions about the soundness of the official brief the publicists are required to sell. Let us not forget that high level image-makers could not save the Ayub regime. It was proud of the great progress made during the 1960s, as evident in the concentration of wealth in the hands of 22 families, and master image-maker Altaf Gauhar orchestrated the decade of development celebrations. But before the 1960s ended Ayub Khan had fallen, and within 24 months of the 1970s the state disintegrated.

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2020

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