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Polity at the crossroads

Riaz Missen
THE PPP was confined to Sindh last year following the general election; its ethnic ally, Awami National Party, was routed in the KP. The sun of PML-N also set in Punjab. The wonder works these parties did, with the help of the right-wing lots, like JUI-F and JI was of amending the Constitution (18th Amendment, 2010) and transforming the country into an ethnic federation. The move brought autonomy to the federating units and enhanced their share in the federal divisible pool up to 48% but without a commitment to passing the benefits on to the grassroots level. The parties, which got passed the 18th Amendment, did not heed to the implementation of Article 140-A (concerning the formation and empowerment of local governments) and, hence, a whole decade went without a mechanism that is known as the most effective method to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Later, when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were globally adopted in 2015, Pakistan was without necessary administrative infrastructure to implement them (local government elections were held in 2015 due to the pressure of Supreme Court but resulting bodies were too fragile to undertake any social sector development work). The leading political parties cunningly had put into effect two-party system as per their understanding of 2006 (Charter of Democracy), the relevant rules requiring their mutual consent for the formation of interim government and appointment of institutional heads. The PPP championed the cause of smaller provinces on the question of autonomy and distribution of fiscal resources while PML-N remained contended with the third term of Nawaz Sharif and shelving the issue of new province. PML-N did not object to the 7th NFC Award or the deletion of concurrent list as Punjab, which it was lording over, did not lose much in new arrangements. The question of water reservoirs over Indus River were to be decided in the Council of Common Interest (CCI) also did not bother it very much, despite the fact that the southern belt of Punjab needs to be compensated for the loss of three eastern rivers in the wake of Indus Basin Treaty (1960). The ANP wanted the renaming of NWFP vis-a-vis the fact that a particular linguistic group had got majority there in the course of time. Unmindful of the consequences, most importantly the sense of alienation the move would create in such a multi-linguistic province, the PPP and the PML-N agreed.
Similarly, the prospects of creating new provinces were also killed as the Constitution retained the constitutional provision that conditions any demarcation in the boundaries of provinces with the passage of a resolution, sanctioned by 2/3 rd majority of respective provincial assembly. Come to devolution, and its spirit seems to be lost. Power and resources have been devolved to Karachi, Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar but there is no arrangement to pass the same on to the grassroots level. Not a single province can claim it has given a local bodies system as per the spirit of the Constitution (140-A). Social sector development attracts as meagre resources as 5% of the annual budgets while the burden of taxation remains on the poor and middle income groups. The naive stratagem of the PPP and PML-N, to alternate themselves in the corridors of power, has resulted in the phenomenal rise of the PTI, which has tried to articulate the frustration of masses over the absence of a mechanism to hold accountable the individuals and institutions responsible for the delivery of public goods. Electorate went for change in the last general election and brought in PTI, which vowed to see off regressive taxation regime and to increase spending on social sector development —health, education and environment — and empowering local governments. What is mysterious about the PTI is that it is short of any clear plan to execute the agenda of devolution down to the grassroots level and put an end to regressive taxation regime, which wrests from the marginalized sections of the society and puts at the disposal of the well-off.
Though PTI has secured KP and made heavy inroads in Punjab, but its chance to make any difference is constrained by the fact that the country keeps living with the phenomenon of a hung Parliament. The more it remains in power without restructuring political system, the more the country’s Human Development Index will sink. There is a fundamental drawback with parliamentary democracy that it consolidates and solidifies contradictions rather than resolves them; only the vast and diverse countries like India can afford it. Those willing to restructure Pakistan, as per the requirements of global age, need to rethink the space the Constitution provides to ethno-religious parties in electoral politics. There is something wrong with the whole idea of ‘citizenship’ that discriminates people on the basis of their religion and ethnicity. Pakistan needs an administrative overhaul to give an expression to the idea of ‘equality of citizens’ and ensure the just and fair distribution of ‘public goods’ at the grassroots level. Sustainable peace and prosperity is not possible without empowering the people at the grassroots level.
— The writer is political analyst based in Islamabad.