I A Rehman
The emergence of regional parties in Pakistan was inherent in the scheme of constitutional development pursued in South Asia. The process has been facilitated by Pakistan’s failure to develop an integrated national identity. While regional parties can influence, and occasionally determine, politics in their territorial domains, demographic realities are likely to circumscribe their impact at the national level, at least in the foreseeable future.
The British colonial power established a tightly controlled, centralised political structure in India. While the Governor-General enjoyed the honorific of Viceroy, deputy to the monarch of England, he was subject to the directives of the Secretary of State for India. At the same time, allowing the natives a share in managing their affairs at lower levels was considered necessary, not only for maintenance of tranquillity but also for developing indigenous institutions as a cushion for alien rule.
The colonial rulers began by inviting their subjects to take up municipal responsibilities and reviving the panchayats. While the Deputy Commissioner (a less offensive designation than the earlier title of the district satrap: the Collector) was the most important figure in the hierarchy of power – Deputy Commissioner, Commissioner, Governor, Viceroy, the King/Emperor – the people in the towns and villages had little contact with the alien ruler. The indigenous face of the authority they were required to deal with – the patel, the lambardar, the patwari, the thanedar – screened from them the reality of colonial bondage. The consciousness of subjugation to a foreign power was further diluted when municipal functionaries were found capable of installing street lights and opening dispensaries. This was the beginning of the native’s co-optation into the scheme of imperial rule.
The next significant stage in the process described as India’s constitutional advance was recognition and consolidation of its provincial entities. While the people were denied any semblance of representative rule at the national level till the final months of the Raj (1946-1947), the provincial entities were allowed a share in power in the 1919 scheme of diarchy and this share was increased considerably after the general election in 1937 under the Act of India, 1935. This provincialisation of politics arrested the people’s progress towards forging a national identity subsequent to the political unification of the Subcontinent through conquest. The resurrection of their cultural, ethnic and linguistic identities that existed before the British took over persuaded the people to make the best of the opportunities at the provincial level and ignore the centre which, in any case, was beyond their reach.
Two factors contributed to the trend towards preferring provincial identity to the national. First, quite a few provinces had a pre-British history as autonomous entities (Bengal, Oudh, Punjab, Sindh) and the promise of provincial autonomy satisfied their revivalist aspirations. Secondly, the Muslim League thesis on the rights of provinces that did not expect justice from an all-powerful centre put a premium on provincial identity. The language of the Lahore Resolution makes it clear that the demand for Pakistan was premised on the provinces’ right to be autonomous and sovereign.
As a side-effect of the rise of provincial politics, the cultural, ethnic and linguistic communities within the provinces started to aspire to provincial status. The Indian National Congress accepted this demand and promised re-demarcation of provincial boundaries on an ethnic and linguistic basis once the country became free. The Muslim League attained Pakistan before facing such demands and these emerged after Partition.
The possibility of the British abandoning the jewel in their crown persuaded provincial communities to accept coexistence with one another under a consensually constructed national canopy. Unfortunately, doubts about the Pakistani state’s capacity to accommodate the provincial aspirations for autonomy and the willingness of the rulers at the centre to appreciate them surfaced within a few months of independence. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (then known as the North West Frontier Province or NWFP) developed a grievance on account of denial of the rights of an elected majority, Bengal called for recognition of its language, Punjab sought relief from the centre’s hegemony and Sindh became angry over the centre’s annexation of its most precious piece of land.
Pakistan’s early rulers did not acknowledge the need to build a democratic state and also ignored the fact that with the founding of an independent federation the provinces had graduated to a higher political level — that is, they had become coequal wielders of sovereign authority. Decades of persistence with a unitary, largely viceregal, system progressively forced the people belonging to what are rightly described as oppressed communities/nationalities to fall back on their provincial identities. Failures of provincial governments to resolve intra-province contradictions have led to assertion of ethnic and linguistic identities within the provinces, such as the desire of Balochistan’s Pashtuns, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Hindko-speaking community, Seraiki (and Potohari) people in Punjab, and Sindh’s Urdu-speaking permanent Mohajirs to carve out separate entities.
Similar failures have been noted on the part of political parties. Organising an all-country political party in a federation is a particularly challenging task. The Muslim League had secured a nationwide consensus on the slogans of freedom and religion. The slogan about freedom became redundant on independence and religion could not cement unity because, firstly, belief does not match the benefits accruing to citizens from representative rule and, secondly, instances of Muslim rulers oppressing fellow Muslims could be found throughout the history of Muslim peoples.
Significantly the first national alternative to the Muslim League, the National Awami Party, had its origins in the provincial movements for autonomy. But it fell victim to the Cold War choices of Pakistan and the inevitable anti-democracy intrigues. The Awami League was a similar initiative but it was soon reduced in practical terms to the status of an East Pakistan party. The military, an anti-democratic and anti-federation force by definition, sought to create an all-Pakistan image by projecting the perception of discipline and development and only succeeded in widening the gap between the federating units. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), though rising on the strength of Sindh’s political aspirations and Punjab’s itch for settling scores with India, sought broader national acceptance with its slogan of relief to the have-nots. When the latter did not get what was promised the party started declining.
Thus, we have today political parties that have some presence in all the four units of the federation, such as PPP, Pakistan Muslim League–Nawaz, Pakistan Muslim League–Quaid-e-Azam, Jamaat-e-Islami and now Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Then there are parties that have pockets of support in two provinces, such as Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam; the Awami National Party and Pakistan Muslim League–Functional, and regional parties that wish to be accepted as national parties, such as the Muttahida Quami Movement. There are also parties whose presence and ambition both are limited to their provinces. Most of these parties are in Balochistan (National Party, Balochistan National Party, Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, Jamhoori Watan Party) and Sindh (Sindh National Party, Jeay Sindh Mahaz, Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz). Many of them conform to ethnic divisions.
Most of these regional parties came into being as a result of the failure of national parties to accommodate the provincial interests. The failure of national parties is due to several factors. The socio-economic conditions of the people belonging to different provinces reveal wide disparities and quite a few issues divide provincial governments. These factors have impeded the development of theses that could accommodate the interests and aspirations of all the federating units. Besides that, the national parties have tended to follow the British practice of co-opting the elite of the provincial populations which leaves large sections of the populations out in the cold.
Hitherto provincial parties have been losing out to national/mainstream parties at the provincial level because acquisition of power at the provincial level was meaningless if a provincial party did not have its finger in the central pie. The situation may change as the order envisaged by the 18th Amendment starts influencing public choices. Now a party that wins elections at the provincial level can be quite happy governing its province as its dependence on the centre should be much less than before. But whether the provincial parties in power in provinces will be able to influence state policies is not clear.
As things stand, Pakistan is likely to have coalition governments for quite a long time and the party that enjoys majority in Punjab, which holds more seats in the National Assembly than all the other provinces put together, will be the favourite to lead the coalition. It is not necessary that the party needing small support to form a government will turn to regional parties for support; it may rely on its own members from the other provinces rather than the regional parties that might represent a better part of the population. In such bargains the regional parties may win a few concessions but are unlikely to influence national policies. They are unlikely to acquire the clout that regional parties in India have because the latter represent large populations and also have significant representation in central legislatures. In Pakistan, regional parties will need to come to terms with Punjab’s demographic advantage. However, if the Punjab-led coalitions at the centre do not come to terms with the regional communities’ aspirations, they will only succeed in condemning the state to perpetual instability, to disintegration even.
The writer is a journalist and the secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan