One party, one unit?

(First published on December 29, 2018)

The ghosts of our tragic past are revisiting us. Pakistan, as it stands today, was once forced to be one administrative unit. It was primarily an administrative decision because at that time we had more layers of power necessitated by two wings of the federation, but the move turned out to be a disaster and had to be reversed.

Since the mismanagement of the federation led to the much-politicised departure of East Pakistan, any reference to the state’s ancient foibles brings back bad memories. Ergo the claim that there is an attempt to revive one unit. Even though this claim is potentially a political goldmine, the real question is if such a step is even possible in today’s Pakistan?

Another serious question being raised is of one-party system. If the leadership of the two major parties of the past are apprehended and these parties weaken as a result, would the country’s democracy be held hostage by a PTI-led one-party system? But can a country like ours have a one-party system? Worst still, if in the natural scheme of things two major parties disappear, will the dialectical nature of democracy not ensure the emergence of a negative element.

Dissenters always find a way out and if political dissent is banned, the overriding sentiment may hide behind religious dissent, it is argued. What happens then? These two major questions along with the matter of vulnerabilities of the federation have consumed a lot of my mental processing power in the past few years and are worth exploring further.

The fall of East Pakistan was a great tragedy of our history and leaves behind many lessons which need to be learned. But primarily owing to political expediency, the lessons we teach ourselves are not the real ones. For instance, we learned from this episode that the Pakistani state is highly volatile and its federation prone to a systemic collapse. This at best is a farfetched notion. Barring the creation of Bangladesh, there is no example of political geography of states changing in the post-colonial South Asia. From Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, no nation has had to cede any territory unwillingly. As the names suggest the biggest problem of the two wings of pre-1971 Pakistan was that they were not physically contiguous. In the middle of the two wings sat India, the country’s self-confessed worst enemy.

So impractical was the scheme of things that according to one report mentioned by Ayesha Jalal, the Quaid-e-Azam tasked Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy to strive for the creation of an independent United Bengal state. That could not be. Suhrawardy did not succeed or the Quaid’s early death ensured that the blue print of such a state departs with him. But the fact that even such an impractical arrangement of two totally disconnected wings survived together for 24 years should tell you something about the nature of inertia in South Asia and the anti-fragile nature of the Pakistani state. No, the real lessons of the sad terms on which East Pakistan departed were and remain to this day the need to pay heed to the marginalised, efficacy of meritocracy and of avoiding corrupt practices. And no one seems interested in those lessons.

Now let us talk about the possibility of the creation of a one unit. It is a weird concern borne probably out of the whispers of the possible abolition of the 18th amendment. Weird because the pattern of the shift of power in the past one and a half decades has remained downward. Even General Musharraf showed keen interest in the devolution of power during his tenure. What is more, one can comprehend the mindset behind the creation of one unit in West Pakistan vis-à-vis East Pakistan. The latter was distinct and homogenous. The former was not. But things would get crazy when you took into consideration the existing three lawyers of power: the federation, the wings and the provinces. Instead of seeking a nuanced solution to the matter rooted in broad-based consensus, the Platos in the court of prime minister Mohammad Ali Bogra arbitrarily decided to abolish provinces in West Pakistan. It was a myopic scheme and backfired royally. But the point is that the realities of then and now are neither compatible nor comparable.

As for the 18th amendment it has repeatedly been pointed out by the government that there is no imminent threat to it. And the government lacks the numbers in parliament to do anything about it. It was a noble attempt to address the constitutional imperfections as they existed after the 17th amendment. But while a committee was formed to debate and deliberate on the architecture of the 18th amendment when it was presented in parliament there was hardly any debate. There is a reason why parliamentary debates exist.

To ensure that nothing is overlooked. Since the Senate of Pakistan is a territorial house, it guarantees that concerns of the smaller provinces would be taken on board. No debate means no redressal. And what the 18th amendment did, amid many other things, was to abolish the concurrent list. When the concurrent list was created along with the 1973 Constitution with the promise that it would be reviewed in 10 years, it was an admission that provinces did not have adequate capacity to use this power. When the 18th amendment was passed, the situation had not changed much. And since new provinces were not created, this meant that the provincial government would have veto power over dissenting parts of the province. Like say, Karachi. The 18th amendment is not a divine word that cannot be changed but there is no reason to abolish it. Parliamentary democracy is a quest for more perfect union. So, if there is any weakness in the system after its passage, it can be addressed through further deliberation and debate. And it is saddening to hear the PPP express concerns about the 18th amendment after what it did to its architect, Raza Rabbani.

And a few words on one-party system. One great aspect of Pakistan is that it remains politically diverse. Even in the face of worst tyranny in the country, despite laws and sponsorship of dictators, no single party could monopolise the system. What makes you think that it can happen in the age of hung parliaments? If you do not see many major parties emerge since the 1990s, is it not because the political culture in the country is bent? Corruption creates distortions; bends rules to hide itself; obliterates meritocracy; waylays attempts to alleviate poverty, inequality and inequity. Do away with it and you get a flourishing, thriving political culture and multi-party system.

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