Ethno-linguistic political entities representing smaller sub-national groups have played a very significant role in the politics of Pakistan right from the country’s independence till very recently. But, for the first time in decades they may not be able to play a big role in the next general elections. The decreasing role of ethno-linguistic parties in Pakistan’s politics would have consequences but largely positive.
Historically ethno-linguistic political groups may not have been able to launch big political movements against dictatorships or sitting political governments or win a landslide in their respective provinces, but they have been important catalysts in political movements. In the recent history of Pakistan, the most important ethno-linguistic political group has been the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), claiming to be representative of the
Urdu-speaking community which migrated from India to Pakistan. The MQM emerged in the early 1980s. Prior to it, the most significant such political group was the National Awami Party (NAP) formed in 1957. The NAP had been an umbrella organization of ethno-linguistic groups from the socalled smaller provinces, including Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, and Sindh and also including some Punjabi politicians. The NAP emerged to resist the move to make the then West Pakistan (today’s territorial Pakistan) as One Unit (a province). One Unit was formed by the dominant West Pakistani political elite to have constitutional and federal parity with the then population-wise bigger province, East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). While this movement could not play a significant role in attaining its objective, but it kept the political pot boiling in the 1950s and 1960s. Ultimately One Unit was dissolved after the dismemberment of Pakistan with the separation of East Pakistan in 1971. NAP had a very negative role in arousing ethno-nationalist hatred among the members of smaller ethnic groups against the dominant province of the Punjab.
Another very important ethno-linguistic party of Pakistan was the Awami League formed in late 1950s to safeguard the rights of Bengalis in the federation of Pakistan. Later the Awami League under former student leader, Sheikh Mujeebur Rahman, successfully struggled for the creation of Bangladesh.
the 1970s, Pakhtun, Baloch and Sindhi ethno-linguistic groups, styling themselves “nationalist” parties, have splintered into many entities with the dissolution of NAP. Since then, different groups have sided with various countrywide parties like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and since 1988 with the Nawaz Sharif Muslim League (PML-N) to remain in power at the central and provincial levels. In this regard, the example of the Awami National Party (ANP) is quite important. The ANP remained in power four times since the late 1980s, twice with the governments of the PPP led by Benazir Bhutto and twice with the governments of the PML-N led by Nawaz Sharif. During these eras, the ANP was unable to bring substantial benefit to the Pakhtuns of KP, the party’s political constituency. When the residents of KP gave the ANP a majority in 2008, to fulfill its promise of getting the province and its people rid of Taliban terrorism, the party completely failed to deliver. Instead of devising a strategy to fight the Taliban, the ANP during its rule in KP, as part of the coalition with the PPP at the centre and the province, came up with a few projects, specifically establishing some universities. The aim behind the establishment of these universities was not to educate the masses but to recruit the sons, daughters and scions of the ANP leaders. However, for outsiders, especially donors, the establishment of universities seemed a genuine move to promote education. But the residents of KP did not benefit at all from the rule and policies of the ANP government; therefore, they overwhelmingly rejected the ANP and voted to power the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan in the May 2013 national elections. Since then, the ANP is facing its worst situation in politics. The ANP Is trying hard to revive its political fortunes but has been unable so far, as the party support to the PML-N has further damaged the prospects of the party. The relatively good performance of the PTI government in KP, the traditional political base of the ANP, has also unnerved the party as well as the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F), which has a significant following in KP.
In Sindh rural, besides the Awami Tehreek of Ayaz Palijo no other Sindhi ethno-linguistic political party is of relevance today. This is largely due to the fact that the PPP, which has remained an important national party of Pakistan for decades, has become a Sindhi nationalist party in orientation. Therefore, the PPP could not win any worthwhile parliamentary seats from the Punjab, KP and Balochistan in the 2013 elections. So Sindhi nationalist parties like Jeay Sindh (various groups) will not be a force to reckon with in the next general elections. In interior or rural Sindh the next elections would be between the PPP and the anti-PPP parties spearheaded by the Functional Muslim League of Pir Pagaro. Even in urban Sindh, where the ethno-linguistic MQM has dominated the scene for the last three decades, the schisms in the party and the emergence of three factions—MQM-London, MQM-Pakistan and Pak Sar Jameen Party— would damage the prospects of the party. The space created by the MQM would be capitalized on mainly by the PTI, and to a certain extent the PPP in the next general elections.
In Balochistan, except the Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNPM), which is working genuinely for the rights of the Baloch, no party is really relevant today. However, even the BNP-M could only win a handful of seats from the province in the last elections. But the results of the elections, particularly in Balochistan, remained highly questionable.
Another ethno-linguistic party the National Party (NP) led by Hasil Bizenjo was able to make its man, Dr. Abdul Malik Baloch the Chief Minister of Balochistan, as a result of a political deal with the PML-N, but the ethno-linguistic credentials of the party have been obliterated. Similar is the case of the Pakhtukhwa Milli Awami Party of Mehmood Khan Achakzai, which has its political constituency among Pakhtuns of Balochistan. The party has also joined hands with the PML-N of Nawaz Sharif, as a result of which a large number of Achakzai family members are in power with elder brother Muhammad Khan Achakzai serving as the governor of Balochistan. The siding of the PkMAP and NP with the corruption-tainted PM Sharif and their failure to deliver in their political constituency will damage their prospects in the next national elections. Only the BNP-M could win some seats, while parties like the PTI may also capitalize on the vacuum left by ethno-linguistic parties in Balochistan.
Against the above mentioned backdrop the next elections in the country would be more a countrywide contest between the PML-N, PTI and the PPP, both at federal and provincial tiers.