Divide and rule is a political strategy that still seems to work in the subcontinent, a fact that was on display during the pandemonium that broke out in the Punjab Assembly on Thursday.
Amidst all the ruckus, it became increasingly evident that Punjab’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) has been successful in dividing the increasingly vocal proponents of a new province being carved out of Punjab. That the party has been able to do so without directly getting involved in the debate is being seen by both sides of the aisle as a political masterstroke.
A proposal backed by the Pakistan Peoples Party-led coalition for the creation of a ‘South Punjab’ province – proposed by the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid leader in the provincial assembly – was diluted by two other proposals: one for a Bahawalpur province a third for a province to be made out of the Thal region.
Three competing proposals seemed to take some of the steam out of what had hitherto seemed like a fairly united movement for the creation of an ethnic-Seraiki dominated South Punjab province.
While much of the energies of the opposition legislators were spent lambasting Punjab Assembly Speaker Rana Muhammad Iqbal for not allowing debate on the new provinces (the session had been called to discuss law and order and the alleged inequities in spending the development budget), proponents of the new provinces spent much time arguing with each other.
For instance, when Ali Noor Haider Khan Niazi, a Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal member from Mianwali, proposed the creation of a separate province in Thal, he was pelted with papers by the PML-Q’s Samina Khawar Hayat.
The PPP’s Fouzia Behram called him a traitor to South Punjab when he said that he was opposed to a new ‘South Punjab’ province. Behram led a round of sloganeering to drown out Niazi’s voice.
Meanwhile, the PML-Zia leader Shahid Anjum presented a proposal for the restoration of a Bahawalpur province, which – like all of the other proposals for a new province – the speaker declined to allow onto the floor of the assembly for a reading.
Both the MMA bill and the PML-Z bill for new provinces reportedly have the blessing of the PML-N, which itself has yet to propose any resolution on the matter of new provinces, staying – on the surface, at least – neutral.
The session started nearly two hours late, five minutes before noon. When the speaker made it clear that he would not allow the opposition to discuss their proposed resolutions on new provinces, chaos broke loose, with members behaving like schoolchildren left without a teacher: banging desks, shouting and throwing things at each other.
The speaker adjourned the session for an hour to allow the members of the assembly to calm down. When the session resumed, the noise and chaos resumed, leading the speaker to adjourn the session until an as yet unspecified time.
Meanwhile at a meeting of the Punjab PPP, members of the federation’s ruling party expressed their dissent with their party’s central leadership to turn the new provinces debate into a proxy battle fought between the allies of the PPP and PML-N. Most of them expressed a desire to enter the debate directly.
About half of the 108 PPP members of the Punjab Assembly are from the South Punjab region and bristled at the idea that the PML-Q had been asked to propose the new province for their area.
They lashed out at Senator Babar Awan – a key PPP leader at the federal level – for rhetorically supporting the South Punjab province while preventing his fellow party members from taking any actions to support the move.
PPP leaders were asked at the eleventh hour to change their strategy for creating the political momentum for a South Punjab province, a development party sources say happened after a meeting between Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 12th, 2011.