From the very beginning, Pakistan’s politics has been characterised by the tension between a state that has sought to consolidate and centralise its power, and federating units that have tried to gain greater autonomy and freedom. This tension has manifested itself in several ways, from the secession of Bangladesh and the emergence of violent ethnonational movements in Balochistan, to the introduction of legislative measures like the 18th Amendment to adjust the balance of power between the Centre and the provinces. As most observers would agree, these issues are rooted in the two inter-related factors. First, the Pakistani state has historically been dominated by Punjab, with the province providing the bulk of the country’s bureaucrats and, not insignificantly, military personnel. This administrative dominance, coupled with an inevitable electoral/legislative majority derived from Punjab’s massive population, has meant that the province has been able to shape politics and policy in a way that has arguably encroached on the rights of the smaller provinces in areas such as the allocation of federal revenues and the devolution of fiscal powers. Second, the official narrative underpinning Pakistani nationalism has long cast provincialism and ethnicity as being an inherently divisive force, with the state clamping down, often violently, on expressions of such politics while continuing to centralise power in the hands of the federal government. This approach has often yielded paradoxical results (such as the ongoing violence in Balochistan), but it is worth noting that it has never really been incompatible with the assertion of Punjabi dominance; while the smaller provinces stand to gain considerably from the expansion of provincial autonomy and the decentralization of decision-making, Punjab would lose out under such a scenario.
In this context, it is interesting to consider what the emergence of the Janoobi Punjab Suba Mahaz (JPSM), a collection of elected representatives and politicians demanding the creation of a province in South Punjab , actually means for Centre-Province relations and broader politics in Pakistan. The possibility of splitting Punjab into two or more provinces is not a new idea. Historically, the Seraiki-speaking belt that constitutes Southern Punjab has arguably always had a distinct cultural identity from the northern and central parts of the province. Similarly, right up until the colonial era, Punjab had been governed from two distinct centres (Lahore and Multan) corresponding to the north and south of the province respectively and under the British, Bahawalpur remained a mostly-independent Princely state, existing as a separate administrative entity from the rest of Punjab. While ethno-national sentiment in Southern Punjab has never reached the level of articulation that characterises such movements in all of Pakistan’s other provinces, it has nonetheless remained a part of the country’s political discourse for decades.
It is not difficult to see the merits of arguments in favour of creating new provinces in Pakistan. At a purely administrative level, it is clear that a province like Punjab, with a population that makes it much larger than many countries around the world, would become more manageable if it were split into two or more units. This is particularly true when considering how every single development indicator shows that Southern Punjab lags behind the rest of the province when it comes to the provision of public services including healthcare, education, and infrastructure. Creating a new province in Southern Punjab would lead to a range of institutional adjustments – separate funding and revenue from the Centre, a discrete legislature, and separate representation in the Senate to name just a few – that would go a long way towards ensuring a more equitable allocation of resources to the region. Similarly, it would also do much to address the current imbalance between Punjab and the other provinces, largely by reducing the overwhelming electoral and legislative weight the province currently enjoys by virtue of its population. If Punjab were to be split, the province would no longer be the exclusive key to political power in Pakistan, forcing parties to build broader coalitions of support to come to power, and impeding the ability of Punjab to stymie initiatives aimed at addressing the concerns of the other provinces.
This is all well and good, but there are a couple of important caveats to bear in mind about the creation of a Southern Punjabi province in the current context. Firstly, as is often the case with many ethno-national movements and campaigns for autonomy around the world and in history, it is important to remember that such causes can easily by hijacked by elites who see them as a means through which to increase their own power. Following from this, the creation of a Southern Punjabi province might ensure the region receives more resources for its own development, but they will ultimately remain in the hands of the same political elites who have represented this part of Pakistan in the past decades. As such, creating a new province may be a necessary step for improving the lives of the people of South Punjab , but may not be sufficient in and of itself to ensure this outcome.
Secondly, it cannot be coincidental that the JPSM has chosen this current moment to declare its existence as a concrete political entity. The legislators and politicians who comprise the leadership of the bloc have started to defect from the PML-N to the PTI after claiming that the former was not receptive to their demands, unlike the latter which has promised to take action on the creation of new provinces should it come to power. It is worth asking why the members of the JPSM chose to remain silent about their cause for all the years they were part of the PML-N government, and why it is they have chosen to defect precisely when the PML-N is reeling from multiple crises on the eve of the next general elections. It is also pertinent to remember that the last time the issue of creating a new province in South Punjab came up, it was immediately before the elections of 2013 when again, coincidentally enough, a group of legislators and electoral candidates from the region defected from the PPP to the PML-N.
Observers of Pakistan’s electoral politics will be quick to point out that defections and splits prior to an election are rarely the outcome of principled decisions taken by politicians and are usually a combination of opportunism and pressure exerted by non-democratic forces working behind the scenes. The cause of creating new provinces in Pakistan is a worthy one, with many administrative and political arguments in its favour, but it is important to ensure that an issue as vital as this one is not simply invoked to achieve ultimately unrelated political objectives.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.