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South Punjab Province – A Gimmick or Serious Move?

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The demand of South Punjab or Saraiki Province is neither new nor bizarre. Nonetheless, political players have always come forward with new scams and gimmicks over this issue. The movement for “Saraiki Province” was factually started by barrister Taj Muhammad Khan Langah — the president of “Pakistan Saraiki Party (PSP)” in late 80’s after defecting from PPP. However, his political party could never gain noticeable success in the general polls mainly because electable feudal lords of southern Punjab have always been part of the main stream political parties for vested interests. This movement gained strength after the long-lasting “name change” provincial demand of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), formerly called “North West Frontier Province”, was met in the parliament with overwhelming majority and the legislation for the new province “Gilgit-Baltistan” was accomplished in 2013 by outgoing PPP government.

The PPP tried to exploit the slogan of new province in Punjab after its leadership realized that the party was desperately losing political ground in central Punjab. Such political embarrassment of PPP under the leadership of Asif Ali Zardari was mainly due to its extremely poor performance during its government in the center. Additionally, unabated popularity of PML-N in the following years compelled PPP to raise the demand for Saraiki province more seriously so that it could save some constituencies in southern Punjab sharing border with Sindh. In 2013 electoral campaign, PML-N halfheartedly assented to formation of two new provinces — one Saraiki and other Bahawalpur — which was nothing more than an egregious political gimmick and new debate began over this stunt of one or two new provinces.

No practical endeavors, especially in terms of legislative motion in the parliament, were seen in this direction later in the five years tenure of PML-N for which it paid political price and lost its many conventional seats from southern Punjab in 2018 polls. This political setback, to many analysts, happened because very close to 2018 polls, many electable opportunists defected from PML-N and made an independent pressure group namely “Junoobi Punjab Mahaz” that later merged into PTI after gaining reaffirmation of new province from Imran Khan – PTI chairman.

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Vindicated by 2018 polls, PTI replaced PPP in Punjab despite allegations of post-poll rigging from the opposition parties. Like others, PTI also came in power with promise of new province of “South Punjab” on administrative grounds before 2018 polls. Nonetheless, PTI requires two-thirds majority in the provincial and national assembles for passing the bill for independent province in the parliament. The political gurus are even confused over the willpower and intentions of prevalent government regarding any “legislative motion”. Such skepticism is based on reportedly a clear internal divide within PTI for any practical step towards separate province during its five-year tenure. Any motion for separate province from the government in the parliament will probably be a political suicide, offering an obvious advantage to PML-N for making its government in the central Punjab, in case such motion is passed.

While assigning geographical boundary dividing Punjab into two provinces, political consensus is hard to come by

The second dispute over new province is the eruption of differences between two groups of PTI representatives elected from Multan and Bahawalpur divisions, fighting for their respective cities to be declared provincial capital in the framework of a new province. Nevertheless – for face saving – PTI government has pledged that a second (parallel) provincial secretariat would start working from July 2019 in either Multan or Bahawalpur that would ease up difficulties of the people travelling from southern Punjab cities to Lahore for official affairs. Lately, a meeting of provincial cabinet headed by Punjab CM Usman Buzdar was held in Bahawalpur instead of Lahore. This was apparently an attempt to show the seriousness of PTI government in its attempt to form of new province. It appears like PTI could possibly move a bill for separate province at the closure of its five-year tenure if it succeeds to maintain majority in the provincial assembly of Punjab.

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At this juncture, politics on new province can no longer be played because voters have garnered political awareness and acumen over the past few decades and they are in mood of penalizing political parties hoodwinking them. Even if we put aside people’s demand for new province, the rapidly growing population of Punjab itself is justifiably calling for the formation of new province on administrative grounds. This would also drive out smaller provinces from the feelings of deprivation they face due to lower financial share from federation. Jeopardy of separate province in the south is like giving more power to the feudal lords, the majority of whom has maliciously been involved in stealing and plundering the local resources and keeping the inhabitants ignorant viciously for political hegemony. The worst examples are D.G. Khan and Rajanpur districts in this regard where feudalism is present in its worst form and is the main cause of backwardness. The other major complication could possibly erupt – if proper homework is not done – is that of a divide on the issue of geography. While assigning geographical boundary dividing Punjab into two provinces, political consensus is hard to come by. If PTI government fails to keep promise of south Punjab, its fate would not be different from other parties in southern Punjab in next polls because of elevated expectations of its voters living in three major divisions of Multan, Bahawalpur and D.G. Khan.

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