A big power shift

Published: July 3, 2011
The writer is professor of political science at LUMS 

The writer is professor of political science at LUMS [email protected]

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.

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Reader Comments (4)

  • Max
    Jul 4, 2011 - 4:45AM

    Oh Dear! We had been talking of this since our days at Punjab University. Professor Sahib we don’t need a rocket scientist to figure this out. There a simple recipe to keep the units together.
    Treat the smaller units with respect. Give them their due share in distribution of economic resources. And more important keep the civil-military bureaucrats out of the decision making process. They have, as Guillermo O’Donnell explained, very low level of tolerance for participatory politics.
    Rule from above was the colonial norms and let Pakistan and its people make their decisions. Also get rid of this family or clan based rule. A large number of Pakistani may be uneducated but they are not ambivalent about their fate. The elite also need to know that their participatory deprivation is what is dragging them to religious fundamentalism. Recommend

  • Mirza
    Jul 4, 2011 - 8:18AM

    It is only the first step in provincial autonomy in the history of Pakistan. We have to go a lot further and fast. The only regret is we would have provincial autonomy before the surrender in East Pakistan. Our Bengali brothers were called traitors and were subjected to brutal military action, while demanding autonomy. What a shame and humiliation? Recommend

  • Irshad Khan
    Jul 4, 2011 - 10:01AM

    Every politician of the country wants to become a team member of the party who is or is expected to rule the country. Mr. Rais, please analyse education,capabilities and experience of a few renowned politicians and particularly their knowledge about political science, cultural background, history and geography. I believe they are not interested in such of education or knowledge as these things are not needed to govern this country. They have short goals to achieve in a short time; they appear, they achieve and disappear. where is the need of reading history, geography, political science and even the constitution of Pakistan. Their drawing rooms are full of books just to impress guests, just like decoration pieces. People living luxurious lives have no time to read. That is why we understand that power and money has gone into wrong hands and they will keep us deprived of our rights and continue to call us poor people of Pakistan just to keep us depressed and insulted and will also say that they are fighting for our rights which they don`t know themselves. Mr. Rais, please continue to write to create awareness amongst people.Recommend

  • qaiser
    Jul 4, 2011 - 6:20PM

    this is just a drama. i dont believe in this autonomy or wahtever it is and it is notRecommend

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