To amend or not to amend (18th amendment & constitutional rights) -DAWN

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MANY political leaders and activists, even commentators believe that the passage of the 18th Amendment during the last PPP government (2008-2013) goes a long way in promoting national cohesion between the federating units so it’s a good thing.

These leaders include the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif who, during his own government that followed the PPP’s in 2013, demonstrated his commitment to the rights of provinces to an equitable share in resources as without that, the autonomy enshrined in the Constitution loses its bite and meaning. In 2010, PML-N had also voted for the amendment.

One is constrained to mention Nawaz Sharif because he belongs to Punjab. Equally, his younger brother, the then Punjab chief minister Shehbaz Sharif, gave up a part of his province’s resources share during the deliberations with the other three chief ministers, two of them from opposition parties.

What had been witnessed till then was that Punjab saw itself as being a sort of a guardian of the centre’s control over the country with little regard for the demands of provincial autonomy guaranteed in the Constitution. Punjab and the centre seemed synonymous.

The Sharif years in political and physical exile seemed to have schooled them in the art of political accommodation and obviously included walking the talk on the rights of the provinces even where opposition parties were in power. This drew the provinces closer and engendered harmony.

People are aware of their rights enshrined in the Constitution and won’t sit by idly being deprived of those yet again.

That was then. In the current dispensation, Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly lamented the ‘skewed’ (in the provinces’ favour) resource allocation that leaves ‘little’ in the centre’s coffers and emboldens the chief ministers to act as ‘dictators’. He wants to change this but lacks the numbers in parliament.

Mr Khan’s view seems to have been formed independent of the fact that the 18th Amendment made additional resources available to Khyber Pakhtun­khwa’s PTI-led government and enabled it to deliver on its manifesto and propel his party to a second term there and may well have aided his ascent to power in Islamabad too.

Apart from the prime minister, murmurs of disapproval about the 18th Amendment also emerge from other quarters. Leaks have made it into the public domain from briefings to the media or parliamentarians by the ‘high official’.

Some of those present on such occasions seem to get the impression that key institutions see the enhanced resource allocation to the provinces as a result of the said amendment, as weakening or even paralysing the centre by taking away its ability to spend more liberally in the ‘national interest’.

This, may I humbly suggest, is a flawed position to take. It is not rocket science to understand that with so much more devolved to the provinces, their resource requirements would also reflect their enhanced (and the centre’s curtailed) role in delivering to the people.

The 18th Amendment was passed in 2010 and there is near-consensus it restored the 1973 Constitution and removed the distortions that had been rubber-stamped by parliaments that came into being in the shadow of authoritarian rule and were limited in their legislative scope with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads in perpetuity.

The moment that existential threat was lifted the popular will asserted itself and the federating units came together to agree and spell out what their way forward was going to be and what, in their opinion, cemented the federation better than any coercive force.

Politics was left for once to the politicians and they delivered. One cannot take away the right of those who disagree and say the 18th Amendment was a bad thing rather than good. There is no problem as long as that opinion manifests itself in lawful, constitutional and democratic expression.

What major political parties need to watch out for is machinations and political engineering aimed at finding a back door to the needed numbers in parliament as, given the unhappiness among powerful quarters with the 18th Amendment, such an eventuality can’t be ruled out.

As it is, there is a lot of bad blood in the smaller provinces and, in a first, even in the one most-populated, over how dissent and defiance towards all that the centre represents is dealt with by a trampling of rights.

Any attempt aimed at contriving a two-thirds majority will harm national cohesion more than any separatist movement has. People are very aware of their democratic rights enshrined in the Constitution and won’t sit by idly being deprived of those yet again.

The masses know what is good for them. Can we say with equal certainty that political parties, claiming to have their finger on the popular pulse also understand what is good for them or that to them short-term gain or ‘relief’ becomes the most important consideration on occasion?

The state of the opposition with the PPP and PML-N first coming together, then falling out rather acrimoniously, and pulling in different directions, was bad enough because it now appears clear that the incumbents would like nothing better than one-party rule backed by powerful friends.

On top of that for several weeks now even the PML-N seems at war with itself with two parallel (and very definitely mutually exclusive) strategies at play simultaneously. Surely, this must leave the worker and supporter completely confused about who to believe, who to follow.

It wasn’t such a long time back that political observers were baffled by the extent of the political awakening in Punjab and the energy, anger and single-minded purpose pouring out into the streets in the name of the ‘Vote ko Izzat do’ campaign.

Can one hope the leaders can emulate their supporters going forward? Don’t you wish?