Making local bodies useful | Pakistan Today

Making local bodies useful

At Penpoint

  • The PTI must avoid the temptation to rely too much on local bodies

That the PTI would dissolve the local councils in Punjab and hold fresh elections was perhaps inevitable, because of their use as a grassroots organisation by the PML-N. This explains the interest in them shown by the PTI. That the PTI sees the local councils as important is probably unsurprising, because they serve as local party organisations for the PML-N, this is not merely because the PML-N lacks local organisations, as because the local councillors always support the party in office in the province, and thus always join the ruling party.

This fostering role might help explain why the PPP attitude to local councils has been not to touch them with a barge-pole. The PPP never conducted local body polls in the Punjab in any of its tenures, whether during the 1970s or in 1993-6. The first time around it preferred to appoint administrators to run the local councils under the aegis of the provincial government, thus keeping it a source of provincial patronage. The second time the local councils had their tenure consumed by a lengthy court case resulting from the provincial government’s dismissal of the local bodies, and the need for legislation on the subject.

Local bodies and their elections were introduced by the British in 1872. Local bodies were not only carefully controlled, with the DC being always elected Chairman of the District Board, but they were also seen as nurseries of democracy. The theory was that British democracy had developed from local councils, and thus so would Indian.

The PTI will find it useful to fob off workers and disappointed provincial and national aspirants with local body tickets

However, Indians proved contrary in nature, and well before (the Raj thought) they were ready, they used the higher assemblies, mainly the provincial ones, to demand self-government, and then independence and partition. When Pakistan came into being, local councils had not yet developed into models of democracy.

The problem with this was that it was not clear who was responsible for what. Local councils established schools and dispensaries, therefore putting themselves in competition with the provincial governments. These were ‘provincialised’ by the first PPP government, being taken over and handed to the provincial governments.

Politicians viewed local councils as the first rung of electoral politics, and it used to be a natural transition from local councils to legislatures. A common taunt has been that a particular individual would be unable to win a councillorship, let alone the national or provincial seat he was aspiring to. Another phenomenon was that families that could, got a member elected to a local council and later argued for that person getting a legislature’s ticket.

Combined with the fact that most development contracts were handled by local councils, legislators started resenting councillors. The Ayub regime used councillors extensively, and made them the basis of its Basic Democracies system. Councillors were also basic democrats, and electors for provincial legislators, the National Assembly and the President. Local body elections were first held, and the councillors elected ratified the 1962 Constitution in a referendum.

The Yahya martial law did not bother with local bodies, holding only national and provincial direct elections. East Pakistan seceded, the PPP kept the local bodies in abeyance, and it was left to another military ruler, Zia-ul-Haq, to use them for his own ends, to supplant the legislatures. Because the 1985 elections were partyless, a lot of councillors were elected. It was perhaps appropriate that the new Punjab Speaker was Chairman of a district council, Manzoor Wattoo. The Chief Minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, had not been a local councillor, but his becoming PM can be seen as paralleling that move upwards. Wattoo himself was to become a chief minister, and his predecessor, Ghulam Haider Wyne, too had cut his teeth in a local body, the Mian Channu Municipal Committee. Wattoo’s successor, Mian Shehbaz Sharif, had never been a councillor, but his first political office had been as President of the PML Lahore Metropolitan Corporation. Musharraf’s Punjab Chief Minister, had been Chairman of the Gujrat District Council, while the present CM, Usman Buzdar, had been tehsil nazim of Taunsa Sharif.

The impact of all of those councillors being elected was that when the PML was picking candidates in 1988, then 1990, and onwards to today, candidates would appear at parliamentary board meetings along with councillors, who would be a sort of guarantee that they would turn out the vote in their ward. One result of all this was that legislators, who were either councillors, relatives or allies of councillors, took a greater interest than ever before in the sort of small projects that councillors were supposed to take an interest in. Another was the strengthening of biradari bonds and loyalties, and the consequent weakening of party ideologies.

This led to a sort of de-politicisation of the political process. The Musharraf martial law tried to reverse that, ignoring the fact that it had been introduced by a previous martial law, Zia’s. It is possible to see something of the Ayub era as Musharraf tried to make local councils the basis of governance. The concept emerged of district governments, with the DC’s powers transferred to an indirectly elected district nazim.

The new local councils carry over some of those ideas. First of all, they will control education and health. That is indeed a reminder of the district governments, which had 10 devolved departments. However, the police is not being put under the local councils, as before. The district-government idea was to keep local politicians stay at the local level, and not aspire to provincial or federal power, which would be exercised by wise people, not politicians. Keeping the lower tier elected on partyless basis will keep local body elections as violent as before.

The PTI might learn from the PPP’s experience of how local councils are to be integrated. The PTI will find it useful to fob off workers and disappointed provincial and national aspirants with local body tickets. Though the local bodies may be elected independently, they will all naturally fall into the lap of the government.

Its dependence on local councils ultimately kept the PML-N unfit for opposition. It remains to be seen whether the PTI manages to escape the temptations they offer. Initially at least, it does not seem to realise that British local bodies delivered because there was no tinkering or experimentation. Here, immediate results are needed.