I will not be able to report and comment upon the national assembly proceedings of Monday in today’s column; far more explosive and important developments took place in the Senate. But first a few lines to elaborate the background.

Islamabad has a definite set of ‘palatial houses’ in its posh sectors. Their owners generously run them as ‘open houses.’ That furnish spaces for ‘influential politicians and opinion makers’ to keep their ‘social relations’ intact, in spite of maintaining either/or kind of posturing on public forums.

Until the surfacing of COVID-19, the dominant theme of ‘informal brainstorming’ at these house had been focused on the fate of the 18th amendment in our constitution. After being adopted by an overwhelming consensus around ten years ago, this amendment had presumably settled the thorny question of dividing power between the federal and the provincial governments, ‘for good.’

Powers conceded to our federating units through the said amendment, eventually facilitated the establishment of a judicious looking National Finance Commission. Thanks to its unanimously reached accords, provincial governments started to feel as if enjoying‘the real’ autonomy after acquiring ‘due share’ from the federal kitty.

Since the advent of the Imran government in August 2018, however, many people deeply connected to fiscal management by the state of Pakistan seriously began questioning the validity of the arrangement reached through the 18th amendment. Narrating a plethora of ‘empirical experiences’ they kept promoting the idea that the provincial governments were yet not trained to exercise their autonomy in an effective and productive manner. Chief ministers had rather begun to act like ‘regional barons’ and recklessly threw money on ‘mega projects’ of their fantasies. They were also accused of callously disregarding the fundamental needs of left behind areas in their domains.


In short, the ‘well-connected types’ were found actively lobbying for serious re-visiting of the 18th amendment. Feeling too comfortable with their numerical strength in both the houses of parliament, the major opposition parties –Pakistan Muslim League (the PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (the PPP)- didn’t take their bickering seriously. They kept reminding that you need 2/3rd majority in parliament to revamp the said amendment and the Imran government was even deprived of the simple majority in the national assembly, on its own.


But some people kept suggesting that it was not the Imran government per se, which wanted to tweak the 18th amendment. The nonpolitical elements of the‘permanent institutions’ of the state were not feeling good about it. Such institutions instinctively love the ‘unitary form’ of governance. But they can’t push Pakistan back to the unitary forms of governance, frequently tried and tested until 2010.


Yet the sudden surfacing of whispers for an “Islamic Presidential System” in early 2019 forced many leaders of the same opposition parties to worriedly question their complacency. Some of them even began to loudly forewarn that any attempt to tweak the 18th amendment would certainly push Pakistan to a crisis, the height of which we had endured in December 1971.


Then came the COVID-19 and our attention was completely diverted to deal with the pains of an ongoing pandemic. Doing the same, though, we gradually started to discover a host of fault lines. That conveyed the feeling as if the existing structures of governance were just not able to cope with crises, triggered by a pandemic or any other natural disaster.


The apparent ‘vacuum’ seemingly enforced non-elected institutions to take the initiatives of establishing ‘command and control’ centers to effectively deal with Corona-driven crisis and to avert the serious instances of food insecurity, if the locusts entered Pakistan with a vengeance. The establishment of these centers clearly exposed the ‘hybrid’ brand of our democracy. But it also furnished solid arguments for those, consistently demanding a radical reconsideration of the 18th amendment. Yet the question remained: How to go about it?


We should indeed be grateful to Senator Mohammad Ali Saif, who dared to take the ‘first step’ in the said context Monday. This legislator, with energetic and youthful looks, is an attention-grabbing player of power games. He rose and rose on our political scene during the days of General Musharraf and eventually surprised many by reaching the Senate on the MQM ticket, in spite of being a “proud Pashtun.”


Monday was the day reserved for private initiatives in legislation at the Senate. Mohammad Ali Saif literally shocked many by vigorously pushing for a Constitutional Amendment at the outset of the sitting. He is not a novice and needs no tutor for discovering that the amendment, proposed by him, required a huge number to get approved by the upper house of parliament.


His party, the MQM, did not have the required number. Even the full-throttled PTI support wouldn’t get him “there.” Still, he vehemently persuaded the desire of at least managing the sending of his proposal for serious consideration by a standing committee of the Senate.


Apparently, the amendment proposed by Barrister Saif didn’t attack the 18th amendment per se. If you go by the book, he only wanted to get rid of a “sub clause” of Article 160 of our Constitution.


The said clause of Article 160 states: “The share of the Provinces in each Award of National Finance Commission shall not be less than the share given to the Provinces in the previous Award.”


If the said clause is taken out of the constitution, then the federal government will surely have ‘legitimate space’ to allocate funds to the provincial governments, according to its own priorities. Federating units would have no “constitutional backing’ while asking for their share as a sacrosanct right.


Senator Raza Rabbani didn’t surprise a person, while forcefully resisting Saif’s deeply sneaky move. He had been the main architect of the 18th amendment and remained consistently diligent in building a consensus for it, attained after many months of hard labor. He always behaves like a panicky mother, whenever questions are raised to highlight ‘fault lines’ of the 18th amendment or attempts are made to tweak it by any means.


But as a very experienced parliamentarian he sounded more like a studious academic for resisting the move made by Barrister Saif. Senators, representing the ‘nationalist parties,’ on the contrary, turned furious and aggressive. Some of them even questioned the credentials of Mohammad Ali Saif and tried to project him as ‘the devious agent’ of extra-parliamentary forces.


Maulana Atta-ur-Rehman, the younger brother of Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the Jamiat-e-Ulma-e-Islam (JUI-F), turned shockingly rude and blunt while confronting him. Instead of focusing his ire on Mohammad Ali Saif and his proposed amendment, he started to put taunting questions for judging ‘the performance’ of those, he alleged, were ‘using’ Barrister Saif to push Pakistan on a “dangerous road that can lead to another break up of the country.”


Sadiq Sanjrani, the Chairman, had to employ all possible tools of bullying and appeasing to prevent an ugly showdown between Maulana Atta-ur-Rehman and Mohammad Ali Saif.


Ms. Sitara Ayaz presumably represents the Awami National Party (ANP) in the Senate. This party firmly associates itself with the cause of “provincial autonomy” and claims to be pursuing the ideology, set by a legendary Pashtun nationalist, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan. But she is now suspected by her party to have “switched loyalties”.


Ms. Ayaz took the floor immediately after Maulana Atta-ur-Rehman and very intelligently defended “the institution,” she alleged, the JUI-F leader had tried to drag in essentially a political and academic debate for “no justifiable reason.”


Senator Mohammad Ali Said delivered a thundering speech to defend his position. He deliriously took on the opposition senators and described them as “slaves” of the leaders of their political parties, which to him were the decadent and rotten icons of the dynastic politics.


He proudly described himself as an independent mind from the middle class and owned his love and devotion for “the defenders of Pakistan.” But his bombastic speech could not convince the majority of senators to vote in favor of the demand that the amendment, suggested by him, should be passed on to a Senate Committee for serious consideration. His attempt was rather scuttled with the voting of 25 against 17.


Still, Barrister Saif must feel good; he surely has brought an explosive issue into the open, which had been discussed in whispers for the past so many months in a score of power-connected drawing rooms of Islamabad.