PPP, PML-N vis-a-vis New Provinces Issue
by TARIQ BUTT
Acommission constituted by the acting National Assembly speaker to carve two new provinces out of Punjab has turned out to be a non-starter at the very outset because of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party's doggedness to take political mileage and the nonchalant attitude of the main opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), towards it. Its very belated formation when the PPP and its coalition allies are about to exhaust the tenure of their government in the next few months had created doubts about their intention and any meaningful outcome that it may produce.
In the final analysis, the PPP is poised to use the commission as a demonstration of its sincerity to establish Seraiki province to show to the electorate of this region that it is serious to give them their due rights and that its archrival, the PML-N, is the chief hurdle in recognizing the needs of the Seraikis because it is set to torpedo its effort. On the other hand, the PML-N pleads that the only aim of setting up the forum is to split Punjab that it did not want. It is struggling to give a message to the people of the majority province that it considers its principal electoral bastion that it stood like a rock against attempts to divide Punjab. In their own style and way, both the major political parties would use this issue to exploit the voters in the forthcoming general elections that are going to be unprecedentedly fiercely fought.
After noticing that the PML-N was dragging its feet on the formation of the commission, the PPP has gone ahead with its plan and established it by including twelve Members of Parliament (MPs) of all parliamentary parties. The acting speaker also sought two nominees, one each from the treasury and opposition, from his Punjab Assembly counterpart, Rana Iqbal, who, however, has refused to send the names following the line of his PML-N and declared that he would instead challenge the very establishment of the commission in a superior court. He demands that at least twenty-four members of the Punjab Assembly (MPAs) should be included in it.
The acting speaker picked up three PML-N MPs including Begum Tehmina Daultana and Rafique Rajwana and Chaudhry Saud Majeed, and five lawmakers of the Pakistan People's Party - Farhatullah Babar, Syeda Sughra Imam, Ali Musa Gilani, Arif Aziz Sheikh and Jamshed Dasti thus having four from Punjab and one from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). Three of the four PPP MPs belonging to Punjab come from the Seraiki belt while Ms Imam belongs to Jhang. One member each of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Pakistan Muslim League-Q (PML-Q), Awami National Party (ANP) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F) namely Dr Farooq Sattar, Kamil Ali Agha, Haji Adeel and Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haidri respectively have been opted in the forum.
The first question or objection that can be raised about this composition is that if only Punjab is to be divided then why the political parties like the MQM, ANP and JUI having no say in the Punjab assembly or the province as a whole have been given representation in the commission. Their inclusion would have been justified and fair had the body been assigned the task of recommending creation of provinces in the existing federating units where they were needed. If only Punjab is to be split, the MPs from this province should have been inducted in the commission so that nobody objected or expressed reservations.
The PPP's policy on creating Seraiki province has not been consistent. When such a demand was raised over two years back for the first time, the then Prime Minister of the PPP, Yusuf Raza Gilani, who later became a great champion of having this area as a province, dubbed it as a conspiracy against the federation. But later he feverish campaigned to make the Seraiki region a province. He kept harping on it for more than two years. This was naturally an afterthought with the only objective of cashing in on it politically on the premise that the PPP was considerably strong in south Punjab (while the PML-N was relatively weak) and its campaign would bring immense electoral dividends.
Additionally, the ruling coalition waited for over four years to take a solid step like formal formation of the present commission to suggest ways and means to have more provinces in Punjab. At the same time, the PPP is only interested in midwifing the Seraiki province (in the southern area of Punjab), a name that it is no longer using to avoid the charge of parochialism, ethnicity and regionalism, but is strongly opposed to restoring the status of Bahawalpur as a province. Ironically, there has been no demand whatsoever from the people of the Seraiki belt to make it a province while there have been strong urging from the inhabitants of Bahawalpur to revive its old status. The PPP thinks that restoration of Bahawalpur will not bring any political benefits to it while the establishment of Seraiki province will produce a windfall.
Simultaneously, the demand for making Hazara a province is very loud. There were violent protests that claimed several lives when the North Western Frontier Province (BNWFP) was rechristened as Khyber Pakhtunkhawa (KPK). But the PPP is totally unconcerned to make Hazara a province for the mere fact that it would annoy its coalition ally, the ANP, and its establishment would not benefit it politically in any way. The PML-N has even demanded that the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) should also be made a province. But the incomplete commission that has been put together has no mandate to make recommendations about creating provinces ccomprising Hazara and FATA.
As against the PPP's stand, the PML-N is staunchly opposed to making the Seraiki region a province while it does support the demand for reinstatement of Bahawalpur as a province obviously for political reasons like the PPP. It feels that creation of Seraiki province would whittle down its political stronghold while the revival of Bahawalpur would be beneficial for it. When some time back the PPP sponsored a resolution in the Punjab assembly to have south Punjab as a province, the PML-N felt embarrassed as it did not want to oppose it so that it was not taken by the Seraiki people as against their rights. It therefore tabled a motion to revive the status of Bahawalpur. Out of political necessity, the two supported each other's resolutions, which were thus unanimously passed.
The constitutional position is crystal clear on forming new provinces in the existing federating units. Clause 4 of Article 239 of the Constitution specifies the procedure and says a bill to amend the Constitution which would have the effect of altering the limits of a province shall not be presented to the President of Pakistan for assent unless it has been passed by the concerned provincial assembly by the votes of not less than two-thirds of its total membership. This means that even after its passage in the two Houses of Parliament, such a bill would have to be approved by the concerned provincial assembly with 2/3 majority before its presentation to the president for enactment. As is evident, this provision makes no mention of any commission that the Speaker has formed on a reference from President Asif Ali Zardari. Similarly, it also doesn't talk about any role of the president or his reference. The two resolutions passed by the Punjab assembly, a similar motion approved by the National Assembly and the present commission have no constitutional or legal weight, backing or sanctity.
Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has called for constitution of a national commission to review creation of new provinces saying if the division of any federating unit is inevitable, a universally just and uniform policy should be followed. The PPP neither made any consultation about establishment of new provinces nor took the Punjab government into confidence with regard to setting up of the commission for the division of Punjab. However, now the federal government has decided to contact the PML-N to address its reservations. As efforts to capitalize on the issue by both sides will continue, general elections will come and the two sides will project their stands to attract voters. If the PPP and its allies are really sincere to establish Seraiki province, they should quickly pass a constitutional amendment in the Parliament as they have the requisite 2/3 majority. Although the amendment will not become final in the absence of its approval from the Punjab with the two-thirds majority, yet the ruling coaliton will have something credible to show to the people that it did make a genuine effort and did what it could but its political rival sabotaged its bid.