All politics is local

Published in Dawn – photo by S. Ali/PPI

We start with a simple truth: that government becomes more trustworthy, the closer it is to the people.

This is because all politics is local. Whatever the press may dub important, chances are the people care most about clean drinking water, access to healthcare, roads instead of rutted paths, a less brutal police.

And chances are the people that most understand this will be of them and among them: representatives, not rulers. It’s the essence of local government.

For the longest time, however, we’ve had nothing of the sort. While explanations go as far back as the British, we can start somewhat later: party-less elections in 1985.

It was a Zia project that, like all Zia projects, reverberated for a generation­ – the Class of ’85 was a bonanza of opening acts that never did exit the stage afterwards: Chaudhry Nisar, Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, Sheikh Rashid, Hamid Nasir Chattha, Javed Hashmi, Manzoor Ahmed Wattoo, and a 36-year-old Nawaz Sharif.

Though it wiped out the PPP from Punjab for good, the 1985 election was vital for another reason: polls without parties meant campaigns without manifestos. With no actual programme to vote for, what mattered was money and baradri, sect and status.

For MNAs and MPAs so elected, what was on offer wasn’t big ideas or better laws. It was patronage: the politics of thaana-kacheri, of digging ditches and cutting ribbons. What was national became municipal. What was municipal became redundant.

It’s also why our Hon’ble Members continue to do so little for LGs ­– why give away the only powers they have? Their parties double as policy graveyards; their lawmaking beholden to the party heads.

Yet the alternative has always meant military dictatorship. Those that praise LGs brought in by the generals – the latest being Musharraf’s – forget that the intention was to bypass the political class, strengthen the centre, and part with the least power possible.

Which is why a new consensus around local governments, ushered in by the Eighteenth Amendment, has been so refreshing. While we often mention Article 140-A, we fail to pair it with the thrust of the amendment itself: shoring up civilian rule by spiriting resources away from the centre to the provinces (it’s why the establishment finds it so repulsive).

And yet the ball has landed midway: the provinces must cede space to the last and most important tier – local governments. As Arifa Noor has written in these pages, if our parties are serious about democracy, ‘they would ensure that power is transferred not just from Islamabad to Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta but to Multan, Hyderabad, Mansehra and Gwadar.’

The scheme of Article 140-A makes this clear: ‘Each Province shall, by law, establish a local government system and devolve political, administrative and financial responsibility and authority to the elected representatives of the local governments.’

Legal eagles like Umer Gilani have already walked us through these terms: ‘devolve’ and not ‘delegate’ implies an irreversible transfer of rights; ‘local governments’ instead of ‘local bodies’ means a co-equal with the provinces and centre; ‘shall establish’ creates a constitutional obligation – not a matter of convenience.

And yet local governments are under siege everywhere, courtesy the ruling parties. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Peshawar High Court ruled that the PTI’s bid for party-less LG elections was unconstitutional; it took another push from the Supreme Court to ensure they were held.

Over in Balochistan, the BAP-PTI combine’s delaying tactics were shut down by the ECP; it now drags its feet on sharing information for delimiting local councils.

In Sindh, the LGs have been utterly emasculated by the PPP’s rotten laws: Karachi’s mayor was given the sop of chairing municipal boards, without any actual powers or budget.

In Punjab, Buzdar sent the local governments packing before barely half their term was over. They were restored by the Supreme Court last March, after a two-year struggle led by mayors Mubashir Javed and Asad Ali Khan.

There are still some silver linings: LGs have taken hold in the popular imagination; the courts are uncompromising about polls being held on time; and mayors in KP and Punjab are or will be directly elected representatives of the people (of note is the PPP’s Saeed Ghani, who says the same for Karachi isn’t ‘humanly possible.’)

It’s time now also to free up resources from the provinces; to announce election schedules; and to phase out the bureaucracy’s fossilized Brahmins from the municipal level.

Most important, the LGs must be protected from trigger-happy chief ministers. Justice Jawad Hassan’s recent judgment in Mubashir Javed held that an LG’s term had fixed start and endpoints (despite this lawyer’s contention that security of tenure had been guaranteed by precedent). That makes it all the more vital that the chief minister’s dissolution button be scrapped from our LG laws. In light of the Supreme Court’s verdict in Asad Ali Khan, it already has zero legal value.

We may yet move beyond 1985. But only local governments can get us there.

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