Emulating the policy of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) founder (late) Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, President Asif Ali Zardari has also discouraged the demand of a separate Saraiki province. However, this is not the first time in the country’s political history that the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has rejected demands of provincial bifurcation. In 1970, when the movement for a separate Saraiki province as well as rumblings of turning Karachi into a distinct province were at their peak, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto rejected these demands. Similar was the case when the Pashtuns demanded the merger of Pashtun areas of Balochistan into NWFP.
The stance of the PPP regarding provincial bifurcation is very clear: although the party has majority seats from the Saraiki belt, and such a move could be in the interests of the party given that the PPP is not in power in Punjab. Yet, despite the fact that Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani belongs, even he rejected this move.
Why has the demand for a Saraiki province been raised so suddenly and who is responsible for it? Prominent political analysts believe that the provincial bifurcation issue was raised simply to divert attention from real issues such as the power and water crisis. The military operation in NWFP and the insurgency in Balochistan are also other major crises, while the economic situation of the country also merits consideration.
The debate on the Saraiki issue started when Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Makhdoom Javed Hashmi openly started discussing the subject in the media. Makhdoom Ahmed Alam, a Pakistan Muslim League-Functional (PML-F) leader from Bahawalpur, then raised the issue of separate Bhawalpur province.
The leadership of the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) also jumped into this debate and supported the proposal. Muhammad Ali Durrani, a close adviser to former president Sardar Farooq Leghari and federal information minister in the previous regime, justified this claim and said that he had proposed an amendment in the constitution to accept this demand both in the provincial and national assemblies through simple majority. Political observers claim that the Q-League is still a party of the establishment, and is operating to destabilise the democratic system.
Why did Makhdoom Javed Hashmi join this demand? Without a doubt, Hashmi was the main pillar of the party in the absence of the Sharif brothers, and managed to save the party during the Musharraf regime. After the Sharifs returned from exile, they chose to ignore Hashmi and preferred Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, sparking an impression that Nawaz Sharif was still a leader of GT Road.
In 1990, when Nawaz raised the â€˜Jag Punjabi Jag’ slogan, party leaders from the Saraiki belt objected to the policy but did not talk about it publicly due to party discipline. This time, the budget of the Punjab government came under criticism among the party rank, especially among those from the Saraiki belt, who complained that the development budget allocated for areas along GT road was twice as much compared to the Saraiki belt. Regardless, the creation of more provinces is not an easy task. This is a constitutional matter and needs a two-third majority, both in the provincial and national assemblies. No party can achieve this task alone.
The real issue is provincial autonomy and restoration of the original Constitution of 1973. Repealing the 17th Amendments is the core problem, since the legislation serves to undermine parliamentary supremacy. While the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) did not raise the issue of a separate province in the larger national interests, creating any new province will encourage the others. For instance, Balochistan seeks the merger of Jacobabad in the province because most of the population of this area are Balochi-speaking. Similarly, Sindh also has sought merging Lasbela from Balochistan to Sindh because majority of the people of this area are Sindhi-speaking. This issue would affect not only the parliamentary system but also the powers of the prime minister and parliament.
Political analysts believe that there will be no consensus in the country on the issue of separate province as this issue needs rethinking time and again. More importantly, the prevalent environment of the country needs the government to concentrate on the real issues that blight the country’s society and politics.