People Vs. Establishment in Pakistan
By Ayesha Siddiqa, Dawn, March 7, 2008
PPP’s Asif Zardari has correctly pointed out the need to re-negotiate the contract with the establishment. This is no mean task and would, besides other things, require major changes in the design of the state.
The political forces cannot be empowered vis-à-vis the establishment until and unless concrete action is taken on the following three issues: (a) provincial autonomy (both political and fiscal), (b) shifting the emphasis from military to socioeconomic security, and (c) re-imagining the state.
The PPP’s new chair also apologised to the Baloch people for all the atrocities done by the state, especially during the times of the PPP government of the 1970s. However, Mr Zardari must think beyond apology and take affirmative action to alleviate the concerns of all smaller provinces and under-represented sub-regions of the country including those within Punjab.
The best recipe is provincial autonomy the mention of which might unnerve the centrist forces. Such elements believe that giving political and financial powers to the federating units will weaken the Pakistani state. This is because they imagine the state as a centrally controlled force in which the majority of people adheres to a single set of objectives, language and culture. Such a formula was adopted soon after the country’s birth in 1947 in the form of imposing a single language to be adopted not as a language of communication but a national language. These elements perceive the mention of other nationalities and diverse cultures as antithetical to the state and prefer to adopt centrist organisations as the symbol of national unity.
However, their approach has always divided the country rather than gel people from diverse cultures together. A sense of nationalism that connects people of the four federating units cannot prevail unless people are allowed to enjoy their other identities at the same time. In fact, it is a fallacy to argue that people from the smaller provinces want to walk away. Separatist movements happen all over the world which indicates the sentiments of a minority and not the majority.
However, separatist movements gain a life whenever the state structure is top-down and not sensitive to the identities and regional ethos of the people. Thus, provincial autonomy will strengthen the country and give a sense of ownership to the people. Why should certain parts of the federation consider other parts as less nationalist and patriotic? Fiscal autonomy will create a sense of partnership in the state. It is a fallacy to argue that a majority of the people of this land, including those in the smaller provinces, do not want to be part of the federation.
Fiscal autonomy is highly essential because it will provide each federating unit with the financial means to develop and plan for it accordingly. The people of the federating units are owners of their resources and should have the right to voluntarily decide on what they would share with the rest to get public good such as defence, law and order, common currency, etc. The state bureaucracy has consistently opposed the idea of the federating units having control over their earnings because this is what would weaken the centre and take the power away from a certain kind of elite based in and around Islamabad.
The propaganda about how regional forces or identities will mar the strength of the Pakistani state is a story which is encouraged to divert attention from the need for empowering regions and their people. One of the ramifications of a heavily centralised state, therefore, was the excessive focus on defence versus development debate. In fact, the concentration on this issue is both a cause and effect of a powerful centre which was always justified in the name of consolidating the state.
The peculiar prioritisation of state expenditure, however, created an imbalance between different regions and communities which stoked the fire of ethnic tension. Since Pakistan, soon after its birth, turned into a security state, the growth of indigenous population was neglected and the resultant imbalance of socioeconomic development amongst communities created tension between the resourceful and the neglected. The under-developed societies of some areas could not compete with those who had better education and exposure. Whenever political governments tried to eradicate the imbalance, though imperfectly, it created greater tension and conflict. The relationship between the Urdu-speaking migrants (mohajirs) and the ethnic Sindhis is a case in point which I will discuss at greater length in my next article.
What a state chooses to spend on its military security versus socioeconomic security is a political issue, which should take into account the will of the people of the federating units. If there is a consensus on the fact that the current threat to Pakistan emanates from internal issues rather than external, then it calls for changing the priorities for spending the state’s resources. Moreover, with provincial autonomy the units will have greater say in what kind of security they want.
The other important issue is of re-imagining the state which is a contentious matter and demands political solutions. Here, I am referring to the need for dividing the state into more rational linguistic units. History tells us that the present sub-regional political division was done by the British. Earlier, the regional divisions looked different. For instance, at one point in time Sindh extended up to Multan.
Of course, we cannot revert to the older boundaries but what is necessary is to make space for the smaller linguistic groups that have consolidated in different parts of the country. For instance, the Seraiki-speaking people have been demanding a sub-region and so have the Urdu-speaking population that now dominates the life of urban Sindh. There are several linguistic based divisions which can be imagined.
Surely, such a suggestion would make a lot of people nervous. And this is where the parties need to appreciate the problem and develop a political consensus. An over-centralised state benefits the establishment rather than the people.
Over the past sixty years, there have been major demographic and political changes in the country which should be taken into account while considering the future of the state. For instance, the concentration of growth of the Urdu-speaking migrants in the urban centres of Sindh and the movement of other ethnic groups to these cities has created tensions which need to be resolved. Then there are various ethnicities in Punjab who feel under-represented because of being lumped with the rest of the population for years. These communities are divided due to the varied degrees of development.
The answer, of course, is to bring equitable development to all regions. Meanwhile, the tensions, which result from inequitable development trajectories, can be resolved through giving these communities the confidence of political participation recognised within the larger political framework of the state. In the past, under representation and varied development trajectories have been the source of conflict and misunderstanding amongst the communities. There is nothing sacrosanct about the existing regional boundaries. However, this is an extremely sensitive issue which will have to be dealt with tenderly.
The political government might not be able to address this issue soon after it gets into power. However, this is not a matter which can be ignored endlessly.
The writer is an independent strategic and political firstname.lastname@example.org