The passage of the 18th Amendment has set into motion, a remarkable, though slow, political revolution in restructuring Pakistan’s polity. This is far more momentous than restoring the parliamentary character of the constitution, or even granting provincial autonomy. The word autonomy cannot capture the true letter and spirit of the new federalism that is unfolding before us. Rather, it is about remodelling Pakistan’s political system according to a new principle of distribution of power, with the provinces as new centres of authority, power and resources.
Thinking of provinces as new centres of power and laying something down into the constitution to make them powerful, runs counter to both, the colonial tradition of supervising political evolution, and the centralised state and nation-building strategy followed for the past six decades. It goes to the credit of political parties and their leadership that they have realised that the old ways of governing Pakistan have failed and they needed to give a greater part of the power and resources of the centre, which had grown arrogant, paternalistic and insensitive to the provinces.
This structural change in the political order has created new conditions in which some groups and sections are bound to lose, while others will make gains. Who loses and who gains is an issue that will greatly impact the ongoing process of shifting power to the provinces, as the old, deeply entrenched political and bureaucratic groups fight to the last to save their little turfs and fiefdoms. In our case, the federal bureaucracy is the loser, as it cannot hope to rule the provinces under the guise of national integration, solidarity and security anymore. It will take a great deal of internal reflection on the part of the federal bureaucracy, as well as time, to adjust to the power shift.
Since personal and group loss of this kind is not that easy to adjust to, the traditional ruling groups, as it appears at the moment, will pull all strings from wherever they can to slow down the transfer of power and create difficulties, to make sure it fails. The political parties that have brought about this revolution have a greater responsibility to see its success through. One of the conditions of success is that they stay together on implementing the 18th Amendment with the same historic understanding they demonstrated in the almost year-long deliberations it took to reach the second most important social contract in the country after the 1973 Constitution.
We have heard too often, for most of our history, two self-serving arguments in support of centralising power in Islamabad. First, the elite at the centre — political, bureaucratic and military — are the only patriotic lot and know what the peoples and provinces need. Second, that the provinces cannot be trusted with power and that they don’t have the capacity to wield it — as if those at the centre are angles who have descended from some other planet with all the human virtues and the noblest of intentions.
The inner spirit of the new federalism is to let the provinces take responsibility for doing good for the people, as those who are close to the people understand what they want and how public interest can best be served. This spirit must be carried through careful implementation of devolution of power to the provinces.
No federal bureaucratic structure that is incompatible with the 18th Amendment can be protected by patriotic or capacity arguments anymore. Those who build their case to serve the country on this ground can take their patriotism and capacity down to the provinces from where they have come to occupy positions in federal institutions.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 25th, 2011.