One of the biggest challenges that Pakistan has faced in building a consensual, democratic political order is creating a federation that must balance the need for an effective centre with adequate autonomy and powers for the federating units, the provinces. Every federation in the world has tried to obtain this balance, but seldom has any federation succeeded in maintaining the balance at a fixed place. Federalism evolves through experience, and the centre and the provinces, while protecting their jurisdictional boundaries, remain open to resolve disputes if and when they arise. They exercise different options depending on the nature of the problem. Common among these are going to the highest court of the country, political settlement, and, for more thorny issues, a constitutional amendment.
One must understand that federalism means a cooperative political existence with multiple institutional layers that bind the provinces and the federation together to form a single state and nation. In other words, it is creating unity out of diversity. And since federations like Pakistan represent a complex mixture of ethnic and regional groups, the constitutional arrangement must be flexible and open to dialogue. The other condition is that the political parties and groups must be willing to re-examine powers and autonomy of the provinces by negotiating fresh accords on constitutional matters.
Inflexibility among the ruling politicians of earlier decades on federalism in fact caused irreparable damage to the federation — the loss of East Pakistan. Maybe the politicians and military rulers under Ayub Khan were well-meaning, but they absolutely lacked the knowledge of world history and the art of nation-building in conditions of ethnic pluralism and regional diversity. And those among them who understood the cultural roots of politics had very little or no say at all. Consequently, a unitary mindset and oppressive politics replaced federalism and democracy. Military rulers and civilian strongmen at the centre shared a flawed view of Pakistan — creating national unity through a strong centre. Obviously, a strong centre couldn’t be strong without weakening the provinces or expropriating resources on the expense of the units.
A strong sense of deprivation, a feeling of being wronged and manipulation forced the disillusioned provincial elites and political activists to use ethnic identity to mobilise their constituency to demand their rights. The rise of ethnic politics in any form, violent or as a peaceful political struggle, at least in the case of Pakistan, has roots in the personal and group interests of those who had power at the centre, as much as in the idea of a strong centre to deal with the ethnic mosaic.
While we batter our institutions thoughtlessly at every turn of event, we are miserly when it comes to giving credit where credit is due. Our parliament and the political parties represented in it have played a historical role in resolving some of the complex issues through the 18th Amendment. The most historic and significant role is that of the committee of parliamentarians headed by Senator Raza Rabbani that had representation of all the parties. The work of the committee, its deliberations and the way Senator Rabbani managed consensus is quite remarkable.
I am not sure if the provincial elite and a bureaucracy with centralist interests understand the meanings and implications of the big power shift, a dream of any politician wanting to see things done at the provincial level. This leaves me with two questions; are the provinces prepared to accept responsibility for doing good beyond the provincial capitals with the power and the resources they now have? Will the centralist bureaucracy stop intrigues to stifle the devolution process? The structure of federalism has irreversibly changed, but taking new roots may take longer, until we find a positive answer to these questions.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 4th, 2011.