Provincial autonomy has been a key issue in Pakistan’s political history and is today still very relevant as smaller provinces continue to demand their constitutional and legal rights, while the federal government of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) keeps on denying them the same, in the tussle seriously affecting the state of union of the country and health of the federation. Before coming into power during its present stint (2013-2018) the PMLN was expected to eschew its old practices in the hope that it may have learnt something from its previous two experiences of governance at the Centre and five stints of rule in the Punjab. The expectations of the PMLN to give increasingly more provincial autonomy, apart from ensuring that already enshrined in the constitution, were based on the fact that, to all intents and purposes, the PML-N is itself a provincial party. Thus, it would better understand the issues of the provinces, particularly due to the denial of their economic and financial rights by the central government. Here it must be mentioned that the PML-N won almost all of its National Assembly seats from the Punjab province and, on that basis, was able to form the federal government and it also won a majority to form the provincial government in the Punjab. Under the present PML-N government, in terms of provincial autonomy, the first casualty has been the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award. Despite four years in power, the PML-N government has failed to constitute a new NFC.
Resultantly the provinces have been getting financial and economic resources as per the old NFC. The NFC is the mechanism to apportion national resources and the proceeds from the sale of national resources, between the federal and provincial governments on the one hand, and the provinces on the other. The core criteria for apportioning the national resources, which are first pooled up (Federal Divisible Pool) and then distributed, is population. In the last NFC, the share of the federal government was fixed at 42 percent and that of provinces at 58 percent. This was a great leap forward in terms of financial autonomy to the provinces. The success of the last NFC award was given to Shahbaz Sharif as Punjab’s chief minister who agreed to reduce the weightage given to population from 100 percent to 82 percent and give in to the longstanding legitimate demand of the smaller provinces. In the last NFC certain other criteria for distribution of national resources were also included.
These criteria included 10.3 percent to poverty, five percent to revenue generation/collection and 2.7 percent to inverse population density. Noticeably the PML-N then had its government in the Punjab while the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was heading the federal government. So the agreement of the PML-N to revise criteria for the NFC was aimed more at securing additional finances for the Punjab then any good intention to strengthen the federation. This is proving evident today, as the PML-N even after almost entering the last year of its five year tenure has failed to constitute the new NFC. Nevertheless, the open-mindedness, though motivated by self-interest, demonstrated by Shahbaz Sharif in the last NFC had a positive outcome for provincial autonomy. And strong provinces mean a strong federation, not the other way round. However, this spirit vanished during the PML-N heading the central government. There have been reports that the present federal government of the The Provinces Raza Khan State of provincial autonomy under PML-N The PML-N leadership, revolving around the extended family of the Sharif’s, should have thought more for the national unity, national development and national goals; but, alas, he has acted the diametric opposite.
Here one should recall the words that ‘a politician thinks of the next elections while a statesman thinks of the next generation. The PML-N attitude with KP has been particularly step-motherly, because the PTI has been challenging the PMLN government by launching continual agitprop against rigging in the last general elections and the corruption of the Sharifs. May 16-31, 2017 15 PML-N has been desirous of curtailing the share of the provinces in the NFC, instead of increasing it. However, due to constitutional guarantees the share of the provinces cannot be reversed. In order to find another way to have more resources from the national income for the central government, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar proposed an additional seven percent outlay by provinces from the divisible pool, three percent for setting up a National Security Fund and four percent for development of FATA, AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan. On the other hand, by not coming up with a new NFC the PML-N government has ensured that it has huge resources to spend as it likes and deny the same to the provinces. This is especially the case because in the two provinces, particularly the Khyber Pakhunkhwa, the rival parties are in government, that is, the PPP in Sindh and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in KP.
The PML-N government has been against giving more share to provinces in the NFC because it fears that the provinces run by the rival parties would get more resources through which they could add to their governance performance and this would be at the altar of the PML-N’s prospects in the next elections. The PML-N leadership, revolving around the extended family of the Sharif’s, should have thought more for the national unity, national development and national goals; but, alas, it has acted the diametric opposite. Here one should recall the words that “a politician thinks of the next elections while a statesman thinks of the next generation.” The PML-N attitude towards KP has been particularly stepmotherly, because the PTI has been challenging the PML-N government by launching continual agitprop against rigging in the last general elections and the corruption of the Sharifs. As the PTI is the potential challenger of the PML-N in the Punjab, the bastion of the latter, therefore, the Sharifs have been trying their utmost to prevent the PTI from establishing a model of good governance in KP, lest people in the Punjab turn increasingly towards Imran Khan in the next elections. The victim of this situation has been KP and its people. However, thanks to the strategies of the PTI government in KP, the party has been able to reform most of the government departments. Although the PTI government is far from establishing a model of good governance in KP, but the quality of governance according to international institutions, like Transparency International and international donor agencies like USAID, DFID, JICA, etc., is far better than other provinces, including the Punjab. However, one important outcome for Pakistani political culture and the federation of this step-motherly treatment of KP by the federal government, is that now a nation-wide party, the PTI, which has its government in KP, has become a tribune of provincial rights. The PTI head Imran Khan has been quoted as saying on many occasions that now he has realized how unfairly smaller provinces are treated in Pakistan. If Khan, who is a potential prime minister of Pakistan, so realizes, then it is hoped that in case he comes into power he would try his utmost to address the key issues of provincial autonomy.
Imran Khan has come to his conclusions about the unfair treatment of KP by the federal government, after the refusal by the latter to issue no objection certificates to international oil and gas exploration companies that have intended to explore fossil fuels in the province. Khan criticized the federal government for blocking oil and, particularly, gas exploration, in KP. On one occasion Khan informed the media that a US company, M/s Hycarbex, was ready to start exploration of oil and gas in the Mattani area, on the outskirts of Peshawar, but the federal government had refused to issue a NOC to the company. Of late, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah has threatened to discontinue gas supply from the province to the Punjab if the federal government failed to treat his province fairly. The situation in Balochistan is not much better. The PML-N, with its own party man as chief minister has managed the situation, but it is only a front. It is high time that the PML-N mends its ways, to treat the smaller provinces fairly. However, the PML-N cannot be expected to do so because it wants its bastion, the Punjab, to remain satisfied even at the cost of estranging and angering the smaller provinces. This strategy may not work as there is increasing consciousness within the Punjab, among the masses, how such an attitude of the PML-N towards the smaller provinces is affecting the federation. The people of the Punjab are patriotic; it is the leadership that has, most of the time, led them astray. So the PML-N may not capitalize on this negative strategy in the next elections, of usurping the rights of the smaller provinces to have a few mega projects in the Punjab which, in any case does not make a big difference to the ordinary resident of the Punjab.