Saturday, May 5, 2012

Daily Times Editorial May 6, 2012

Let’s play ‘provinces’ After getting a resolution passed in the National Assembly (NA) in favour of a ‘Southern Punjab’ province amidst noisy scenes of protest and unparliamentary behaviour by the opposition PML-N, the PPP has now moved a resolution in the Punjab Assembly along the same lines. Here the resolution may encounter even stormier weather, if not rejection, since the PPP may not be able to muster a simple majority in the resolution’s support, let alone the two thirds majority required constitutionally to initiate the process of creating/carving out a new province. Even if a provincial assembly passes such a resolution by a two thirds majority, this is only a constitutional requirement to ascertain the will of the people’s representatives of that province. This has then to be translated into a constitutional amendment, since the names and number of the provinces are enshrined in the constitution. Needless to say, such a constitutional amendment requires a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament. Short of this constitutional process, such resolutions can merely be described as ‘politicking’. Even more serious from the point of view of a democratic outcome, it may be necessary before embarking on such a radical change in the federal structure to consider the necessity of a referendum in the province in question to ascertain the will of the majority of the people of that province. It is not certain at this point in time, the long held aspirations of the Saraiki-speaking people of southern Punjab notwithstanding, whether such a referendum would produce a vote in favour of a new southern Punjab province. What then is the purpose behind the PPP’s raising this issue at this moment in time? Clearly, despite the expressed sympathies of the PPP for the ‘liberation’ of southern Punjab from ‘Takht Lahore’ (rule from Lahore), at the present conjuncture the move cannot be understood without taking into account the gulf that has opened up recently between the treasury and opposition in the wake of the contempt conviction of the prime minister (PM) by the Supreme Court. Even before the detailed judgment is received from the court and the appeals process is exhausted, the PML-N has jumped the gun, declared the PM no longer eligible to hold office, and threatened him with physically preventing his entry into the NA. When the Southern Punjab resolution was being passed in the NA, the PML-N was continuing with its rowdyism and misbehaviour in the house, despite the pleas of the Speaker to uphold the dignity and decorum of parliament. The distraction may have inadvertently helped the PPP to get its resolution passed, since the PML-N did not find the time or focus to oppose the motion. If the PPP stands accused of playing politics with the issue of a southern Punjab province to embarrass its rival PML-N (which is now on the warpath against the government) and strengthen its traditional hold in that area in the run up to the general elections, it is not alone in such endeavours. The passing of the Southern Punjab resolution in the NA, media reports say, was only made possible by allaying the reservations of coalition ally PML-Q that similar efforts for a Hazara province in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) would follow. PML-Q has a special interest in that issue since it has gained at the expense of the PML-N ion the area, the latter having been ambivalent so far in supporting the demand for a Hazara province. Ironically, and perhaps with the belated realisation that it was taking a beating on the issue in the Hazara area, a traditional stronghold of the party, the PML-N has woken up and in turn moved a resolution in the KP Assembly supporting the creation of a Hazara province. So it can be discerned that the mere initiation of a move to carve out a new Southern Punjab province has set off similar demands vis-à-vis Hazara, Bahawalpur (a princely state before being merged in One Unit), and even a Mohajir province in Sindh. The last appears to be the outcome of the clever move by the MQM in moving a resolution in the NA in support of a Hazara province. It may have seemed strange to some that the MQM should be taking such an interest in an issue that did not concern it directly. Yet the move now appears as the MQM’s Trojan Horse to have the concept of new provinces being carved out of the existing ones accepted in principle, thereby paving the way for their own project: a Mohajir province in Sindh. Since both a Mohajir province in Sindh and a Hazara province in KP are likely to arouse opposition from other ethnic groups, in Sindh from the Sindhis and in KP from the Pashtuns, the democratic method of ascertaining the will of the majority of the people of a province through a referendum may stave off ethnic strife and possible bloodshed. The bottom line is that the political, constitutional and democratic process of creating/carving out new provinces is a lengthy affair fraught with many a slip between the cup and the lip, and therefore unlikely to see the light of day before the elections overtake us. The present ‘Pandora’s Box’ therefore, is likely to remain a political football rather than become a reality any time soon.

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