September Issue 2013
Between the Devil and the Deep Sea
By Shahzada Zulfiqar | Newsbeat | Published 9 years ago
Despite being in power for nearly three months, Balochistan’s tripartite ruling coalition, led by the National Party (NP) of Dr Abdul Malik Baloch, has failed to even get started on resolving the main issues of the province — mainly law and order and negotiations with Baloch insurgents. Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif — whose party was in a position to form a coalition government, as it was the largest parliamentary group in the province — gave up the chief minister’s office in favour of NP’s Dr Malik Baloch in the hope that a Baloch nationalist-led government would be helpful in propelling forward his development agenda, which includes the Gwadar port, the Reko Diq copper-gold project and the 6,600 MW power project in Gadani.
However, Dr Malik Baloch, who is undoubtedly viewed as an honest politician with a clean past, is confronted with serious crises, both internally and externally. Within the ruling coalition itself, he is facing tremendous pressure from the majority party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by Senior Minister Sardar Sanaullah Zehri, and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) over cabinet formation and the thorny issue of distribution of portfolios among the coalition partners.
Although there is a three-member provincial cabinet in the province, no cabinet exists for practical purposes, as the ministers are yet to be handed any portfolios. Under the 18th Amendment, the cabinet size cannot exceed 15 ministers and five advisors, or 11% of the total strength of the assembly.
According to the agreement reached by all three coalition partners, in the presence of the Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif in Islamabad in mid-August, six ministers of PML-N will be included in the cabinet and four each from the NP and the PkMAP. And out of a total five advisors, there will be two from the PML-N and the PkMAP respectively, while the fifth will be from NA.
Sardar Sanaullah Zehri, the parliamentary leader of PML-N, who has already been included in the cabinet as a senior minister is facing an uphill task in naming the ministers and advisors from the 25 MPAs (20 of PML-N, four PML-Q and one MWM) for only seven slots, including five cabinet members. One member each from the PML-N and PML-Q has already been accommodated in the office of speaker and deputy speaker respectively. However, Zehri has recently stated that, “the delay is not from PML-N’s side, but from our partners in NP and PkMAP, who hide behind their own weaknesses. If it was up to us, we could send names for the cabinet in a short notice.”
The new entrants to the party, particularly those who were elected as independents in the elections and later joined the party, have formed a pressure group along with five MPAs of Q-League and are creating hurdles in the smooth running of the ruling coalition. These turncoat elements, formerly of PML-N, who have through their wheeling and dealing always enjoyed power in previous governments, know fully well that under the chief ministership of Dr Malik, they cannot enjoy “unbridled powers.”
The PML-N central leadership is known to have issued clear directives to the provincial head, Sardar Sanaullah Zehri, not to include Q-League members and new entrants in the cabinet. Earlier Zehri had promised to accommodate the independents and members of the PML-Q and JUI-F if they supported him for the office of chief minister. However, the party’s central leadership chose Dr Malik Baloch over Zehri for the office.
Insiders from the pressure group assert that their ultimate goal is to form a PML-N led coalition, along with the JUI-F and PML-Q, to the exclusion of both the Baloch and Pakhtun nationalists (11 and 14 members respectively).
Other than that, there is the issue of pacifying the Baloch people, who have serious complaints against the federation for depriving their province of its due share in Balochistan’s resources. “Doctor Sahib is caught between the devil and the deep sea on the issue of who should exercise control over Balochistan’s resources. The Gwadar port, which has been handed over to the Chinese for making it operational, is a case in point. If Dr Malik supports the federal government’s stance, he is bound to invite the wrath of the Baloch population, and if he opposes it, he loses the support of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif,” says senior journalist, Mohammad Kazim.
Although the chief minister accompanied the prime minister on his trip to Beijing for signing the MoU on the 18-billion dollar, 2000 km-long Kashgar-Gwadar Road and rail link, he has yet to come up with a clear stance on the gigantic project that has been highly controversial, right from its inception in 1990.
“We have already put forward a demand before the prime minister that the Gwadar port management should be placed under the Balochistan government so that the people of the province are the primary beneficiaries of the project. Let’s hope for the best,” Dr Malik Baloch told Newsline.
However, NP insiders maintain that a debate on the issue is currently in progress and the party will soon come up with a clear stance in this regard.
The first to oppose a Chinese-operated Gwadar port was Sardar Akhtar Mengal, a former chief minister and head of the Balochistan National Party (BNP), way back in 1990, and he even managed to mobilise public opinion against it.
Later, other Baloch nationalist forces joined the chorus, saying that it was against Baloch interests. The opposition to the Gwadar Port and the Saindak and Reko Diq copper and gold projects in Balochistan became so severe during General Musharraf’s regime that the then PML-Q leader, Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain, had to clarify numerous allegations that the government was considering putting a ban on the issuance of ID cards and giving the right of vote to outsiders who came to Gwadar merely for business purposes. The Baloch population was apprehensive about becoming a minority in their own land with the projected influx of millions of outsiders from all three provinces upon the port becoming operational. “We estimate that nearly three million people will come to Gwadar from the other provinces,” said the then additional chief secretary Balochistan, Ahmad Bakhsh Lahri.
Incidentally, Sardar Akhtar Mengal and his party MPA, Hammal Kalmati, who had earlier refused to take oath to protest against the alleged rigging in the elections in their party pockets, finally took oath in the last week of August, after being persuaded by their own party workers and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Mengal accuses the intelligence agencies of playing an active role in defeating many of his party candidates by rigging the elections. His presence in the assembly now and his opposition to the mega development projects, mainly the Gwadar Port, could add to the difficulties of the Balochistan chief minister.
“I have already told the prime minister, in my meeting with him in July, that no development project should be initiated unless thorny issues like the recovery of missing persons, the killing and dumping of their dead bodies, the targeted killings of political workers by death squads of the agencies and the ongoing military operation are resolved,” said Sardar Akhtar Mengal. He further added that his party would oppose any development project initiated without addressing the pressing issues of Balochistan.
In a departure from the usual, Malik’s government is being lauded for safeguarding the rights of the people of Balochistan in the 6,600 MW power project to be set up along the provincial coastal belt. Malik turned down the federal government’s request to sell outright 5000 acres of land to them in Gadani for the project and instead allotted the required land on equity basis. The centre also acceded to its request that one of the 10 power producing units, with a capacity of 660 MW, be allotted to Balochistan for meeting its power needs. The province is presently receiving 650-700 MW against its demand of 1600 MW, with 4 to 18 hours of loadshedding daily. Once the Gadani project gets underway, the province will receive 660 MW power from the allocated unit, and the drought-stricken farmers will be ensured over 20 hours of uninterrupted electricity.
Despite Dr Malik’s resolve to negotiate with the separatists, the chances of a massive military operation are growing with every passing day. Baloch militants have offended Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his party with their act of destroying a national treasure, the Quaid-e-Azam’s residency in Ziarat.
Regarding the gigantic Reko Diq copper-gold project, Dr Malik said on the assembly floor that the matter was now in the International court and Tethyan Company is demanding $ 24 billion as compensation from the Balochistan government, for being denied an excavation license for mining. “We have the option of running the project with the help of the renowned scientist Dr Samar Mubarikmand, but I am worried about its financial aspect. When the government cannot even restore its 500 moribund water supply schemes in the public sector, how can this gigantic project be revived?” he asked.
Another problem, which is even tougher than the revival of development projects, that Dr Malik Baloch faces is that of negotiations with the Baloch sarmachar (separatists), who have thus far rejected all government offers for talks; they insist that they have a one-point agenda for holding any dialogue — independence, no less. The National Party itself has become the target of militant attacks. Recently its central leader, Maula Bakhsh Dashti, was killed by militants. Given that the sarmachars enjoy popular support among the Baloch youth, the National Party has no choice except to advocate negotiations with them.
“There are two models — one adopted by Sri Lanka and the other by the United Kingdom — of dealing with the sarmachars and naturally we, like the British government, would go to the last separatist and persuade him to talk,” said the chief minister in the assembly. But, at the same time without naming the sarmachars’ growing influence, he indicated that the no-go areas in the province were on the rise. In his home district Kechh, for instance, there were many such areas like Mund, Buleda and now the Punjgoor district.
However, despite Dr Malik’s resolve to negotiate with the last separatist, the chances of a massive military operation are growing with every passing day. Baloch militants have offended Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his party with their act of destroying a national treasure, the Quaid-e-Azam’s residency in Ziarat. Further, there are rumours that the separatists are planning to sabotage the Chinese operations in Gwadar port. If they harm any Chinese personnel working in the area, they will invite the wrath of the federal government, which is determined to make the port functional at any cost. Under these circumstances, the NP-led provincial government would definitely back the federal government on any action they take, the most likely one being a military operation in the entire coastal belt and Makran division besides other trouble spots, in order to crush the militants. It is difficult to predict the outcome of the military operation or the fate of the sarmachars.
Balochistan has a history of being ruled by the military establishment through toothless provincial governments. The ongoing military operation, initiated way back in 2000 after the arrest of the elderly separatist leader Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri, was put on a fast track in the wake of rocket attacks on the then army chief and president, General Musharraf, during his visit to Kohlu in December, 2005. Nawab Marri was sent behind bars on charges of murder of the then senior judge of the Balochistan High Court, Justice Mohammad Nawaz Marri. Subsequently, Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti survived two rocket attacks on his residence in Dera Bugti by the Frontier Corps Balochistan and took up residence in a cave, along with some of his tribesmen. But ultimately he was also killed in military action inside the cave. The present operation has been kept on a low pitch for now, but given the level of insurgent activity, it could pick up speed.
“Dr Malik is facing acute pressure, more so than any of his predecessors, both from within the ruling coalition and from the Baloch insurgents. He faces a do or die situation. If he supports the federal government, he loses the people’s support, and if he takes a firm stand vis-Ã -vis the control of Baloch resources he may lose power,” says a senior analyst, Anwar Sajidi. He predicts that eventually Dr Malik will have no option but to step down honourably. In his maiden speech to the Balochistan assembly, the chief minister had said that he would resign if he did not enjoy the requisite powers or he failed to protect the interests of the people of Balochistan.
Will he be subverted by his coalition partners, or the onslaught of the separatists? Both, or so it seems.
The writer is a journalist based in Quetta and is President of Quetta Press Club (QPC).