THE BATTLE FOR PUNJAB
The ingress of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf into the Punjab’s heartland has sent shivers down the spines of many strong-rooted political parties. By BRIG. (R) SALEEM QAMAR BUTT | September 2022
Pakistan’s politics turned chaotic on April 9, 2022 when the Imran-led federal government in Islamabad was ousted in a no-confidence vote, which the former prime minister says was part of a US-backed regime change operation. Following on its heels, Hamza Shahbaz, son of the new prime minister, was also sworn in on 30th April, 2022 as legally invalid 19th Chief Minister of Punjab (the return of dynastic politics) by a similar no-confidence motion against PTI chief minister Usman Buzdar. The people of Pakistan watched with utter disgust and bewilderment the way both the federal and the provincial governments changed hands through sale and purchase of the PTI’s Punjabi electable becoming turncoats and bringing the judiciary as well as the full spectrum establishment under sharp criticism. While the PDM coalition government is still managing to cling to the throne, the provincial government in Punjab returned to PTI and PML (Q) after turncoats got disqualified and PTI won back 15 out of the 20 seats of disqualified turncoats considered hitherto sure winners; this shook the old myth of politics in Punjab. As of now, Ch. Pervaiz Elahi of PML (Q) has taken oath on 27th July 2022 as a ten-seat partner of PTI. With the return of PTI coalition government in Punjab and already held provincial government in KPK, the federal government looks insecure and unnerved as they are now facing even greater criticism compared to the overthrown PTI government due to devaluation of Pak Rupee, uncontrolled inflation, crippled economy and most ugly political polarization manifested through hypocritical rhetoric by all and sundry, establishing new lows in politics as well as in human conduct. It is well established that Punjab being the most populous province, has always dominated the country in all spheres of national life and its distinct inscription can be recognized across the nation, whether in politics, civil services, armed forces, education, medicine, sports, arts and crafts, literature agriculture, industries, technology, manufacturing and other fields. The status of the Punjab has always held the key to Pakistan’s governance. As summarized in the preceding lines, the struggle for control of Punjab has become even more accentuated. While the PML-N has traditionally been the dominating factor in this part of Pakistan since the 90s, the turf is now being invaded by the PTI. In order to comprehend the ongoing political battle for Punjab, and its impact on the federal government and overall governance in Pakistan, a brief overview of Punjab is considered imperative. Punjab is one of the four provinces of Pakistan and the second-largest province of Pakistan by land area (205,344 km2). It is the most populous i.e. more than 110 million (2017 Census) and with almost a 40/60 urban and rural divide, has the strongest impact on Pakistani politics and share in the bureaucracy and ultimate governance. The literacy rate is 66.3% (2021). The region was central to the independence movements of Pakistan and India, with Lahore being the site of both the Declaration of Indian Independence as well as the Lahore Resolution that called for the establishment of a separate state for Indian Muslims. The modern-day Pakistani province has its roots in the Punjab province of British India, which was divided along religious boundaries by the Radcliffe Line during the Partition of British-held India in 1947. Punjab is Pakistan’s most industrialized province, with the industrial sector comprising 24 percent of the province’s gross domestic product. It is known across Pakistan for its relative prosperity, and has the lowest rate of poverty among all Pakistani provinces. However, a clear divide is present between the northern and southern portions of the province; thanks to the political strategy of the obedient servants of the colonial masters of the past and consequent big land owners and evergreen power brokers of the present who continue to thrive on the votes of the poor and dependent masses.
The Punjab with its rich farmlands had remained one of the most important colonial assets. Lahore was a noted center of learning and culture, and Rawalpindi became an important military base. When the Second World War broke out, nationalism in British India had already divided into religious movements. Many Sikhs and other minorities supported the Hindus, who promised a secular multicultural and multi-religious society, and Muslim leaders in Lahore passed a resolution to work for a Muslim Pakistan on 23 March, 1940 called the Lahore Resolution and till to date celebrated as Pakistan Day as it led to creation of Pakistan on 14th August, 1947. The Punjab bore the brunt of the civil unrest following Partition, with casualties estimated to be in the millions. Today, the province is home to over half the population of Pakistan, and is the world’s fifth most populous sub-national entity, and the most populous outside China or India. Punjabis are a heterogeneous group comprising different tribes, clans or communities, which play a significant role in winning or losing an election, but again, the PTI seems to have broken that myth to quite an extent as a new awakening.
Punjab has the largest economy in Pakistan, contributing the most to the national GDP. The province’s economy has quadrupled since 1972. Its share of Pakistan’s GDP was 54.7% in 2000 and 59% as of 2010. It is especially dominant in the services and agriculture sectors of the national economy. Punjab is the most industrialised province of Pakistan; its manufacturing industries produce textiles, sports goods, heavy machinery, electrical appliances, surgical instruments, vehicles, auto parts, metals, sugar mill plants, aircraft, cement, agricultural machinery, bicycles and rickshaws, floor coverings, and processed foods.
Punjab’s canal-irrigation system is the largest in the world. Wheat and cotton are the largest crops. Livestock and poultry production are also important. Punjab contributes about 76% to the annual food grain produce in the country. Cotton and rice are important crops. They are the cash crops that contribute substantially to the national exchequer. Punjab also has more than 68 thousand industrial units.
The Punjab Provincial Assembly has a total of 371 seats, with 66 seats reserved for women and eight reserved for non-Muslims. The National Assembly consists of 342 members and Punjab has 183 seats (53%), including 35 seats for women and 23 seats in the Senate (upper house) out of a total 100 seats. Thus the winner in the Punjab wins the federal government and the prime minister slot too making Punjab the kingmaker.
In 2001, the Punjabis constituted over 71 per cent of the army. After a comprehensive study, the numerical strength was reduced in later years and was brought down to just over 57 per cent by 2007 and a further three per cent decrease in recruitment from that province was done by 2011 by promoting recruitment from other provinces and parts of Pakistan. Within a decade (2001-2011), the composition of Pakhtuns in the army rose to 14.5 per cent, Sindhis to 17 per cent. Now Azad Kashmir and the Northern Areas constitute approximately 9 per cent of the army. Besides, a lot of efforts were made to promote induction in the armed forces from Balochistan, the former tribal areas as well as from non-Muslim minorities.
Punjab enjoys the largest share in the civil bureaucracy as per the population of the province. However, to address the heartburn against Punjabi dominance in the overall politics and civil bureaucracy, nothing significant has happened so far despite some serious effort by the PTI ousted government to realise division of Punjab into North and South Punjab.
The rise of PTI is an indicator of populism, like many democratic countries in today’s information revolution era have witnessed the rise of independent voters who do not believe in freezing their loyalty. The voters desire a re-jigged politico-economic network of elites to hope for better governance through technocrats. Harkening back to former East Pakistan’s crib against imposition of Urdu language, Punjab dominated civil and military bureaucracy and inequality in some other fields, and somewhat similar grumbling by other provinces in Pakistan, the politics of Pakistani Punjab continues to be dominated by landowning politicians, despite significant societal changes that could have potentially eroded their power. As the landed elite (with expanded footprints and investment now in the food, manufacturing and construction industries), were able to reinforce their bargain with the colonial state, similarly after independence, they succeeded in getting close to the Pakistani full spectrum establishment, perpetuating a relationship that facilitated the pursuit of the interests of the actors involved. Punjab has also been strongly influenced by Sufism, with numerous Sufi shrines spread across the province, attracting millions of devotees annually. Again the shrines’ seats (gaddi) holders draw financial and political strength from the respective followers. The rise of politico-religious cults with menacing militant teeth and creed is yet another unbridled phenomenon adding more complications to the already muddy political scene in the country.
Punjab crisis has made things harder for the incumbent government.
It is obvious that Imran Khan’s populist politics has helped the PTI recuperate its support base to the advantage of its candidates in the critical by-elections victory, which has also significantly increased the former prime minister’s popularity in Punjab, thus far, considered it was the stronghold of the PML-N for over three decades. More importantly, the fate of the coalition government at the centre, which depends on a two-vote majority, is also shaken by the outcome of the battle for Punjab. So far, the ruling PDM alliance has decided to continue to hold on to power in the centre until the end of the assemblies’ term. But the Punjab crisis has made things harder for the incumbent government that is trying to work out a way to win the imminent next general elections, besides cleaning the slate of corruption charges and amending the NAB laws, leaving the much desired emphasis on the political and economic stability to the establishment, lip service notwithstanding.
If Pakistan is to progress as a modern state where the foundation of governance can be based upon scientific and technological advancement that can prevail upon obsolete colonial political, judicial and administrative systems, it will have to address the domination of Punjab in the national mainstream. Besides, the process of creation of new monsters to take care of the old Frankenstein needs to be abandoned once and for all. The imminent economic collapse has to be the top priority for the Pakistan Government, rather than consistent reliance on the manipulative lifeline provided by the IMF or the World Bank that impinges on our national interest.
As a retired army officer, the writer has proficiency in military intelligence, diplomacy, strategic analyses, forecast and executive management. He can be reached at email@example.com