More subas? — I

The rumour that President Asif Ali Zardari is likely to announce the formation of new provinces on August 14 is bogus.

Ejaz Haider August 12, 2011

Do we need more provinces? Yes, we do. Could we please have a few more tomorrow, or a week from now? No, we can’t.

The challenge lies precisely in doing what needs to be done but which, for a host of reasons, will be resisted by various groups and parties, not because most oppose the carving out of more provinces but because each group has interests in the carrying out of such an exercise that run against those of the other group(s).

To put it another way, the very reasons for which some of the group/parties want more provinces are the reasons which would make this process difficult instead of facilitating it. The additional problem would of course be resistance from those groups that do not want more provinces — Sindhis losing Karachi; the Lahore-centred Nawaz League that would not want its political base diluted; the Baloch who claim all of Balochistan and so on.

The rumour that President Asif Ali Zardari is likely to announce the formation of new provinces on August 14 is bogus. The president, even if he so wished, cannot do it because he is not authorised to do so. Article 239 (4) of the constitution is very clear about the procedure for altering the limits of a province and adds another layer to any such constitutional amendment by bringing in the provincial assembly, two-thirds of whose members must assent before such an amendment can be sent to the president for his final approval.

It’s all about politics, however, before it becomes legal. The first problem is the concept around which the three-stage exercise of delimitation, delineation and actual demarcation would/should take place. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz says the exercise must not be conducted on ethnic basis because that would serve to deepen the ethnic fault-lines. That’s one way of looking at it and the sentiment cannot be faulted per se. But if one maps the ground, it becomes clear that the demand is essentially ethnic. We have two overt expressions of it — Seraiki and Hazara subas — and we have the more covert MQM demand which manifests itself in the party’s support to ethnic groups asking for their own units.

I asked Ahsan Iqbal how the PML-N would like to map this. He mentioned the former state of Bahawalpur. Sure, I said, prodding him on to give me some more examples. But he couldn’t. In fact, the Bahawalpur factor is interesting because there has been an internal fault-line in southern Punjab between the Riyastis and the Seraikis. However, Ayesha Siddiqa, who has recently done a survey, told me that while 60 per cent of the respondents said they wanted their own province, “their reasons for the demand related to better governance”.

Siddiqua’s take is that given the financial viability, or inviability, of the Bahawalpur suba, it would be much better to opt for a Seraiki suba. The same sentiment was expressed to me by Mohsin Leghari, a PML-Q MPA. Leghari, like Siddiqa, said that this dormant fault-line is being artificially revived and is part of the PML-N’s political strategy. He also gave the example of the ruckus in the Punjab Assembly on August 11 when an MMA member from Mianwali got up to ask for a resolution for a Thal suba.

“The PML-N doesn’t want to come out openly against more provinces because that will be politically disastrous so they are now resorting to muddying the waters for a viable Seraiki sooba,” says Leghari.

This is to be expected. Just like the Sindhis would not want to lose Karachi in any future delimiting of Sindh, the PML-N doesn’t want its power centre in the Punjab diluted. And it can resort to the tactics it is using and also mount serious arguments against the whole exercise while agreeing to have as many provinces as can be made on — its buzzword — ‘administrative’ rather than ethnic basis.

In a newspaper statement, Mian Nawaz Sharif has proposed that if the government (read: the Pakistan Peoples Party and its allies) is serious about creating more provinces, it should set up a National Commission for this purpose which can bring together, for consultation, all the interested parties. While Babar Awan has already dismissed the idea, saying there is no provision in the constitution for such a commission, the fact is that some senior PPP leaders agree that if and when it comes to this, and the PML-N presents a formal proposal in this regard, a commission can be set up and its terms of reference worked out.

“Such a commission doesn’t by its formation violate any constitutional provision especially if it is to be a consultative body which can do the spade work before the issue is taken to the assemblies,” said one senior PPP leader who asked that he not be named.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 13th, 2011.