18th Amendment on a Good Friday!
Moments of happiness are few and far between for the Pakistanis. Last Friday when the draft of the 18th constitutional amendment was tabled in the parliament with the consensus of all the major parties a cool breeze of relief was blowing across the country. People were seen congratulating each other. When the 18th Amendment was tabled a youngster said ‘Thank God it’s Friday.’
The PPP-led coalition wisely linked deletion of disputed clauses of the 17th Amendment with the issue of provincial autonomy and renaming of NWFP. Everybody wanted these controversial constitutional clauses to be removed amicably and move on to the more serious problems of countering terrorism and economic development single-mindedly. Now that the 18th Amendment is hopefully to sail through the parliament smoothly, let’s see what goodies it has for the people.
The most important gain of the proposed amendments is that the center has ceded more autonomy to the provinces. This would strengthen the federation, as its units would be more satisfied with the new division of powers. Undoubtedly there will still be grumblings from the nationalist forces in smaller provinces, but these amendments coupled with the NFC Award would help in assuaging the angry Baloch separatists to a certain extent.
Upsurge in Balochistan has pushed all political parties to take the autonomy issue seriously. Whether the powers which would now be transferred to the provinces would actually flow to them remains to be seen. The people of smaller provinces are no longer willing to wait for the slow processes of evolution. The wariness has heightened into a sense of insecurity. This alienation and insecurity has compounded not lessened. The good thing is that there is a growing realisation in Punjab that the smaller provinces cannot be brow beaten by using military power and by doling out money as grants.
Positive role played by PML (N) leaders in agreeing to the NFC award and to the proposed amendments has to be noted. It shows that Punjab’s bourgeois leadership has resisted the pressure of the centrist establishment.
Transfer of subjects listed in the concurrent list to the provinces and some of the important clauses from the Federal Legislative list one to list two in the proposed amendment are a good omen. The latter would bring many issues which were decided unilaterally by the center to the CCI for including the provinces in the decision making. But a close look at the concurrent list subjects show that the provinces would not be much enriched by this change. Most of the 47 subjects mentioned in this list would bring no financial gain to the provinces. Electricity is the only subject, which can bring any financial benefit to the province. But here too WAPDA is placed in the Part II of the Federal Legislative list. The issue is not clear because Article 157 of the Constitution puts electricity under the Federal Government’s control.
Some provincial subjects which were unnecessarily duplicated in the center would now rest with the provinces. Increased allocations under the new NFC award should help in meeting this expenditure.
Provinces want control over their natural resources and fiscal authority on taxes, which have buoyancy and elasticity. The NFC Award has dealt with some of these issues. Most important victory of the provinces is that their demand to have control over their natural resources including oil & gas has been met half-way in the 18th Amendment. Now provinces will share control over these natural resources with the center. This calls for a real celebration in all provinces.
Agreement to rename NWFP as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa settles an old demand of the 73% people living there. It gives a great psychological comfort to these people and would cement their bond with the rest of Pakistan.
A major success of the democratic forces is deletion of the notorious clause 58 (2) B which empowers the President to dissolve the parliament and sack the elected government. This clause was struck down by Nawaz Sharif’s government but was brought back by Musharraf. This clause was inserted by General Zia-ul-Haq to open a burglar’s window for unconstitutional army intervention through the President. Another favourite of the military establishment which is being packed up by the 18th Amendment is the National Security Council. It was created on the army’s demand.
How come Rawalpindi is in a benevolent mood and letting its favourite amendments be deleted from the constitution? Analysts believe that the policy of reconciliation and political party’s consensus has mellowed the hawks in the establishment. The army is too involved in fighting the terrorist’s threat to the security of Pakistan to dictate the politicians whose support it needs in the on-going war. And the present COAS has so far shown no inclination to push the civilian government out.
In conclusion, whatever may be President Zardari’s past and present follies, he will go down in the history for being the first president of the country to slash his own powers. The CoD signed by his late leader and wife has been honoured. The nation wanted to bring an 18th Amendment for cleansing the constitution from all the polluted amendments made by the military dictators. His government would also have the credit for making the federation stronger by accepting most of the provincial autonomy demands. By giving him due credit, I don’t want to undermine the positive reconciliatory role played by Senator Raza Rabbani and his committee members. Zardari’s only problem is that the thunderous follow up of the Swiss money laundering case against him has dampened his moment of glory. And the people are still not let-off of the hook of uncertainty.
The day the 18th Amendment would be passed by the two houses it would be another win of democracy, and a defeat of its critics who support the concept of benevolent dictatorship in the country.