It is premature to suggest that Punjab, the largest province in the federation and historically a dominant economic and political power in the country, is going to be broken down into smaller provinces. One thing is for sure; it will not be able to retain the present territorial domains as it has since independence. The movement for more provinces is, however, not confined to Punjab alone; it has much greater grassroots and popular support in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, somewhat in urban Sindh and in the demographically-thicker Pashtun belt of Balochistan.
There are several underlying factors that contribute to demanding new provinces. First among them is the multi-ethnic character of the provinces. Plural ethnic communities within a nation or within a province are not a problem by themselves, provided that access to the politics of power, state-allocated resources for development and opportunities for growth are fair, equitable and available. Ethnic identity and bonding around language and region are natural social instincts. They become politicised and problematic when minority ethnic communities develop a sense of deprivation and a feeling of being left out. It is no longer a theoretical question that disparities and disproportionate allocation of resources within each province has created multiple minority syndromes.
The second reason is that provincial autonomy under the 18th Amendment amounts to one-stop devolution. Given the quantum of new powers and resources that are unheard of and unprecedented in this part of the world, five new centres of power, including Gilgit-Baltistan, have emerged. The provincial and national elites, unfortunately, haven’t understood yet the logic of devolution, which cannot be a one-stop affair; its logic is further devolution of power and resources to the distinctive regions and communities. This could be done through a local government system with a focus on district elected government and district-focused development programmes. In every province, the tendency is centralisation of administrative, financial and political power in the hands of the chief ministers. It is primarily the political imperatives of this over-centralisation that have kept the idea of local government tightly locked in the political expediency box.
Touting special development packages for restive regions with distinctive ethnic characteristics is neither a substitute for genuine power sharing nor it is being done for the first time. Even the sincere feeling that backward regions within provinces must be developed cannot earn enough political credit to justify provincial centralisation. And it is being done very late in the day when feelings of estrangement are already quite high.
Third, it is the logic of representative democracy that may finally place the agenda of more provinces on the platforms of mainstream political parties. It happens when the political parties sense political advantage at the popular level. It has started with Punjab but may not end there, as the same competitive template is likely to be applied to other provinces as well. While supporting the creation of new provinces may strike a chord with some sections of the population, it is going to be a difficult task to actually carve them out. Ultimately, it will require a much larger consensus among the same competing mainstream political parties on how many provinces and on what grounds — ethnic, regional or administrative.
For the moment, it seems the weaker parties in each province are going to play the new province card as they feel it is likely to attract a great deal of voters attention among minority groups. On the whole, it is going to be a high political gamble. One cannot rule out a backlash against this card, as opposition within the majority communities may gravely hurt the electoral prospects of such parties.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 8th, 2011.