May 092008

Without recognising the danger to national unity that Punjab’s heaviness and the lack of geographic spread our major institutions present, and enacting institutional reforms to deal with the problems, Pakistani democracy will carry within it the seeds of its own disintegration

More than two months after the general elections, the euphoria has started to fade. American government officials have reiterated their support for Musharraf, despite the unambiguous results of the election.

The coalition is dithering on the reinstatement of the judges and the PM makes suspiciously warm and magnanimous remarks about the establishment. But the elections have also brought to the surface a more fundamental cause for concern that spells trouble for the federation: Punjab’s overwhelming dominance.

Concern over the health of the federation is nothing new – two bloody partitions in the past 60-odd years are evidence enough of the continuing failure to develop a workable federalism.

Some of the nation’s most prominent social scientists, including Haris Gazdar, Kaiser Bengali, and Rasul Bakhsh Rais have given their attention to the issue in leading newspapers. These analyses have focused mainly on the distribution of electoral successes of the major parties across geographic, ethno-linguistic, and development lines. Surprisingly, two geographic factors have been left out that are crucial to understanding federalism in Pakistan.

The first, the geographic distribution of population, is the immediate cause of the intractability of the federalism model in Pakistan. Relative to the other provinces, Punjab simply has too many people. Roughly 60 percent of the voting population lives in the landlocked province. Representation in the lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, is based on population, which makes Punjab king of the castle during any national election.

The election strategies of the PMLN and the PMLQ recognised this. People in Karachi, a diverse mega-city that attracts migrants from every corner of Pakistan, were treated to TV advertisements singing PMLQ’s praises – in Punjabi.

The PMLN, although securing the second highest number of seats in the National Assembly, did not win a single seat in Baluchistan or Sindh, and only a couple from Hazara. Both parties focused their efforts on the Punjab, because they correctly assessed it to be the deal-clincher.

It is not only in campaigning efforts that Punjab’s dominance is troubling. The views of the Punjabi majority strongly influence many aspects of national life, from the role of the Army and the bureaucracy to development expenditures to interpretations of Islam. Some people, especially in Punjab, do not see anything wrong with this scenario.

Doesn’t Punjab deserve to be the centre of attention, considering it has the majority of the population? “Why do people in the other provinces have this tendency to be anti-Pakistan?” laments a middle-aged professional Punjabi while discussing the controversial Kalabagh dam project. But Sindhis, Baluchis, and people from Sarhad do not share the view that Punjab-first is synonymous with Pakistan-first. Indeed, the rational bedrock of federation is that each unit should feel that it is benefiting from the union. Otherwise, why bother?

This leads us to the second factor that has troubled our federation: the historical geography of Pakistani institutions. Pakistan did not inherit any truly national institutions at the time of its birth.

The Army was heavily Punjabi, and Jinnah’s signing of the Sikander-Hayat Pact signalled the capitulation of the Muslim League to landed Punjabi interests. Tariq Ali has suggested that the Muslim League, in any event, was not forged in the fire of grass-roots nationalist fervour in the same way as the Congress Party of India, and could not therefore be expected to act as a nation-building force.

Indeed, it could be argued that the creation of Pakistan was less the result of mass agitation and organisation by the Muslim League, and more of adept parliamentary manoeuvring. The bureaucracy, the “steel frame” of government in South Asia, also did not fulfil its role of nation-building. The bureaucracy has become increasingly “Punjabisised” over time, and the geographic seat of their power was early on shifted from Karachi to be closer to the seat of Army power, Rawalpindi.

It should be evident that the prolonged periods of arbitrary and undemocratic rule by that most geographically lopsided of institutions, the Pak Army, have not been healthy for the federation.

In a grotesque twist of self-perception and rationalisation, however, the Pak Army routinely presents itself as the glue that keeps the country together. While chatting with a Colonel at a party in Karachi, I was taken aback by the sudden steeliness in his voice when I brought up the separatist sentiments in Baluchistan: “Don’t worry. As long as we’re around, no one is going anywhere.”

There are reasons to be optimistic, though. First, according to data from the 1951 and 1998 Census, population growth is slowest in Punjab. Baluchistan and Sindh are growing fastest. By itself though, this “natural” convergence in population is too slow to address the urgent problems of provincial equality.

Second, and more promisingly, this election has made clear that Pakistan People’s Party is the only truly national party, popular across geographic and ethno-linguistic divides. Although the PMLQ also won seats in all provinces, about 70 percent of their seats came from Punjab. Their seats in the other provinces, as astutely pointed out by Kaiser Bengali and Zaheer Gazdar, were often in remote and inaccessible locales, where control over state machinery could have delivered their victory.

How the PPP has become the only national party is a complicated subject, and deserves dedicated research. On the surface, however, it seems to have accomplished this remarkable feat by focusing its rhetoric on the one material condition that unifies all parts of Pakistan: poverty and wretchedness. Whether the PPP can serve its country in the role of a nation-building institution still remains to be seen.

Reconciling the demands of geographic representation with democracy can be messy business. The issue is complicated by the tendency of economic activity to spatially concentrate. The lasting bitterness and resentment in the smaller provinces caused by the One Unit experiment (1954-70), which amalgamated four provinces into one, suggests that other ideas must be sought.

A good first step would be to reform the Senate, the upper house of Parliament, which has parity of provincial representation. The people, not the provincial assemblies, should directly elect candidates to the Senate.

Another, more drastic step would be to devolve Punjab into two or more smaller provinces. According to development indices and ethno-linguistic fractures, the Seraiki Belt in south Punjab can lay claim to a unique identity and distinct socio-economic issues. The 17th amendment to the American constitution, which was a crucial step to overcoming their “gilded age” of corruption, and the creation of Haryana in India offer imperfect historical analogies to both these solutions.

Without recognising the danger to national unity that Punjab’s heaviness and the lack of geographic spread our major institutions present, and enacting institutional reforms to deal with the problems, Pakistani democracy will carry within it the seeds of its own disintegration.

Majed Akhter is an economist based in Karachi, and can be contacted at

Courtesy: Daily Times, 8/5/2008

 Posted by at 6:03 am

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