President Asif Ali Zardari has done the right thing in sending a reference to the Speaker of the National Assembly for establishing a commission to create two new provinces — Bahawalpur and Multan. It is also the first serious move to get the ball rolling on these two proposed provinces that goes beyond point-scoring politics. It is for real and will see the move gathering a lot of political support from within the region and in other provinces.
Actually, credit goes to the president for bringing the issue of a province in southern Punjab to national discourse. The activists for Bahawalpur and Multan provinces are likely to find new energy for their old dream with the support of the major political parties.
It is one of the positive spin-off effects of competitive democratic politics that the idea of the Bahawalpur and Multan provinces appears to be gaining bipartisan support as both parties, the PML-N and the PPP, saw political benefits in supporting the move and feared loss of popular support in the region if they resisted. The first declaration of support for a new province came from President Zardari which many commentators rejected cynically as a political ploy to compensate for declining support of the PPP in central Punjab. Whatever the motive, it was indeed a smart move to win the hearts and minds of the Seraiki population that has long felt cheated and dominated by the rulers of Lahore.
Feeling that President Zardari had struck the right popular chord in southern Punjab, the PML-N made a counter move by supporting the revival of the Bahawalpur province and indicating that it would also help create the south Punjab province. If that was not enough to match the PPP initiative, it moved a resolution in the Punjab Assembly in support of its ideas. In yet another counter move, the National Assembly also passed a resolution in support of the southern Punjab province.
Besides the positive gains of competitive democratic politics — that forces political parties to adopt popular issues or popularise issues that they hope will win them public support — is the issue of elite interaction, negotiation and compromise. This aspect of our politics was quite remarkably demonstrated in the consensus that developed on the Eighteenth Amendment that has restructured our federalism and appears to be a catalyst to the demand of new provinces. It is the same process that appears to be working behind the move for the Bahawalpur and Multan provinces.
Elite competition, as is quite apparent in the Bahawalpur-Multan provinces move, is what may lead to their establishment. It is likely that the dormant, passive and, so far, ineffective political forces of the region will put their collective strength behind this move that no party will be likely to resist.
It makes better sense that the names of the provinces reflect the history, heritage, culture and the traditional identity that both Bahawalpur and Multan reflect. Heritage names for states and provinces should be inclusive of all ethnicities and send a positive political message to minority language groups of common ownership; linguistic labels alienate such groups.
One important note of caution: the move for new provinces is not going to end with the carving up of Punjab even with bipartisan support. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh, even with loud vows of ‘indivisibility’, may not remain unaffected in the face of strong minority ethnic movements.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 11th, 2012.