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A parochial stance – by Murtaza Razvi

Originally Published at DAWN

MIAN Nawaz Sharif’s abrupt about-turn on the constitutional amendments that MNAs of his own party hammered out after intense negotiations with their counterparts from other major political parties will be seen as doing little service to democracy.

The PML-N’s rigid stance on the renaming of the Frontier province as Pakhtunkhwa is no less regrettable.

The apparent afterthought that Mr Sharif had about the appointment of judges to superior courts, and which he cited as one of the reasons for withdrawing his support to the constitutional package the government was all set to table in parliament on Friday, hardly explains the PML-N leader’s conduct — even though the judges matter appears to be resolved now. Because his party is largely Punjab-based, and there’s a broader consensus on the constitutional package among all others from the rest of the country, Mr Sharif’s attempt to scuttle its passage will not help generate any goodwill for his native province.

The people have the right to know as to what changed so dramatically overnight that the PML-N had to back out of its own agreed positions on the amendments in question. There is hardly any plausible reason for the move other than bad politics at play.

On the question of Pakhtunkhwa it is even worse, and will be seen by many as undue interference and exertion of pressure by the big brother that is Punjab. Part of the problem with the renaming of the province stems from the constitution itself, for it lends perhaps too much weight to the likes or dislikes of a politician or a political party even when an overwhelming majority is in favour of such a change.

An intriguing but largely unnoticed feature surrounding the controversy over the renaming of the Frontier province is the mention by name of the four federating units in the 1973 constitution. If Article 1 of the constitution can be revisited, whereby the number of provinces, as administrative units that may together form the federation, can be given some leeway the matter could well be settled by a simple majority vote in parliament.

A few constitutional experts have argued for the inclusion of a broader, umbrella clause to the effect that ‘Provinces are federating units whose number and names can be decided by national parliament by a majority vote’, as opposed to the rigidly worded clause that spells out the existing four federating units.

Such a change in the wording of the said article can make it easier not only to rename an existing province but also to carve out new administrative units. The latter is a necessary step towards better governance, as it would devolve power to a wider spread, reaching more people at the grassroots level closer to their homes than is the case at present.

Such a change would also address the anomaly created in the ambiguous status of the new, Gilgit-Baltistan administrative entity which has all the trappings of a province but is not called as such.

Pakistan needs more provinces in order to strengthen the fledging democratic order by offering the people better governance by a set of elected representatives who, under a smaller administrative setup, will have to be more responsive to their respective electorates’ needs and aspirations.

It is for the political parties to start the debate on this issue so that we stop hearing the parochial sentiments which certain politicians from Sindh to Balochistan and from Punjab to the Frontier have voiced from time to time as representatives of their entire province, when in reality such sentiments may only exist in pockets of their respective provinces.

As for the question of renaming the Frontier as Pakhtunkhwa, the buck should have really stopped at the provincial assembly but for the existing Article 1 of the constitution. The Frontier assembly had voted in favour of adopting the name as far back as in November 1997. The vote sailed through with 53 MPAs supporting and two opposing, while some 45 MPAs abstained from voting; but isn’t that what democracy is all about? Any motion with over 50 per cent of the vote should win the day, as do contestants in an election. Back then, as now, it was the PML which had scuttled the move, resulting in the ANP withdrawing its support to the PML-led government at the time.

It is only on the back of the existing constitution that the PML-N, which has just five seats in the provincial assembly in Peshawar and which is the only party inside that legislature that opposes the renaming of the province, can hold the majority sentiment to ransom. There is little democratic or moral justification for the party’s stance on the issue howsoever compelling its argument may be in favour of the people of Hazara who vote for it; who are not of Pakhtun origin and have reservations on renaming their province Pakhtunkhwa.

Similar logic abounds with regard to the rest of the provinces, which are home to a diverse number of ethnic groups and even nationalities — as Seraikis, spread over Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Pakhtunkhwa areas, Brahvis or Pakhtuns in Balochistan, Tharis in Sindh, and many others elsewhere, could well argue their case.

Contrary to the PML-N’s argument that ‘Pakhtunkhwa’ could harm the cause of national unity in Hazara, it is that party’s lone and intransigent stance on the issue that is more likely to do so everywhere, because the only province where the PML-N has a majority vote is Punjab. The few seats it has retained in Hazara are its only claim to being a national party.

Time was when the PML-N enjoyed a sizeable vote bank in the Frontier, in Sindh as well as in the Seraiki-speaking southern Punjab, but it seems that its leaders’ preoccupation with their political base in central Punjab and their voicing of popular sentiment there alone has cost it its appeal on a wider, national scale.

Shahbaz Sharif’s plea to the Taliban to spare his province, and the Punjab government’s denial of the existence of the so-called Punjabi Taliban and refusal to address the issue are but recent cases in point. These are not good tidings for a society as fractured along provincial lines as Pakistan’s.

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Farhad Jarral

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