This article was published in Dawn News on December 18, 2021. It is available here:
RELATIONS between Islamabad and Karachi are on the boil. To an extent, it is understandable as the two governments are run by rival political parties — the PTI and PPP. The latter’s arch rival in Sindh is the MQM whom the PTI has embraced as an ally at the centre — not so much out of love as political compulsions because of a razor-thin majority in the National Assembly. While the PPP rules in Sindh, the MQM needs support in high places, and despite the fact that both the PTI and MQM happen to be the greatest political threat to each other in Karachi, the two have entered into a marriage of convenience. Their alliance is not the only thing that instils bitterness in Sindh-centre relations.
The corruption cases against the top PPP leadership are being actively pursued by NAB which PPP, like the PML-N, believes is being done at the behest of the PTI federal government. Most recently, the speaker of the Sindh Assembly, Agha Siraj Durrani, was arrested in Islamabad by NAB that raided his Karachi residence. Former president and PPP chairman Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur have to frequently appear before the court in multiple NAB cases. Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah, too, has been repeatedly summoned by NAB. MNA Khursheed Shah, who was formerly the opposition leader in the Assembly and a federal minister, remained in NAB custody over two years. The speaker even refused to exercise his authority to issue his production orders to participate in Assembly proceedings. Several other senior party leaders face similar treatment.
With the next general election less than two years away, battle lines are already being drawn and each ruling party is keen to exhibit to the voters its achievements especially in terms of completed or ongoing infrastructure projects. One of the biggest problems in Karachi is that of public transport which is almost non-existent. The previous federal government of Nawaz Sharif had laid the foundation stone of the first Bus Rapid Transport project in Karachi in 2016 which came to be known as the Green Line Bus project. After huge delays, Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated its test operation this month. Although transportation is a provincial subject and the federally funded project was being executed in the provincial capital, no effort was apparently made to make the inauguration an inclusive affair. Even at the inaugural ceremony, the chief minister and other representatives of the provincial government were not present.
With the next general election less than two years away, battle lines are already being drawn.
All this was a lot of humiliation for a party that has ruled the country three times and is ruling the second largest province of the country that includes the largest port and city. This pent-up bitterness must have propelled the chief minister to utter astonishingly tough words in the Sindh Assembly on Dec 11: “Yes, we are part of Pakistan and we should be considered a part of Pakistan. Don’t create a situation that people start to think about something different.” These words must have shocked many who remembered the separation of East Pakistan 50 years ago. Moreover, the Sindh government has refused to allow the centre to develop two islands near the Karachi coastline and has also refused to be part of the health card scheme earlier introduced by the PTI in KP and now Punjab.
Relations between the federal government and the provinces have been traditionally uneasy in Pakistan. East Pakistan had seceded from Pakistan after turbulent relations with the centre for 24 years. Although Pakistan made tremendous progress towards a more robust federal system by writing an almost unanimously approved Constitution of a federal state in 1973, the implementation was problematic. Pakistan took another major step towards strengthening provincial autonomy and streamlining the federal structure when it passed the 18th Amendment in 2010. Although further constitutional safeguards were built for the regulation of the federation, the smaller provinces still found reason to be dissatisfied.
Two powerful institutions were created in the Constitution to regulate the federation. Their historical performance can act as a barometer of the health of the federal system. The eight-member Council of Common Interests is chaired by the prime minister, and its members, including the four chief ministers and three nominees of the federal government, are evenly divided between the federal and provincial governments. The CCI is required to formulate and regulate policies in relation to Part II of the Federal Legislative List. Under the 18th Amendment, the CCI should meet at least once in 90 days which roughly translates into four times a year but, on average, it has held only one meeting per year in the past 48 years. Of the last 10 prime ministers, only three could meet the constitutional requirement of four meetings per year. Even the current government’s average is 3.3 so far. Although the Constitution mandates the CCI to have its own permanent secretariat, the inter-provincial coordination ministry had been housing the CCI until recently.
Another important constitutional institution is the National Economic Council which is required to review national economic conditions and advise the federal and provincial governments to formulate financial, commercial, social and economic policies. The NEC is required to meet at least twice a year. The record of NEC meetings is not enviable either. During recent times, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was the only prime minister to hold six meetings during his brief term which translates into almost seven meetings per year. Nawaz Sharif could barely manage to hold one per year on average whereas the current government has also held only three in the past 40 months.
While most of the talk and acts of the federal and provincial governments may be categorised as politics as usual, our past history indicates that we should never take the management and regulation of the federal system lightly. The trend to marginalise the provincial governments must be reconsidered and corrected.