Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has reconstituted the Council of Common Interests, but the move has raised some questions that need answering. In the first place, contrary to the provisions of Articles 153(1) and 154(3), which lay down that the Council of Common Interests is appointed by the President on the advice of the prime minister, the new reconstituted Council of Common Interests was announced by the prime minister with seemingly no reference to the President. Second, whereas the eight members of the Council of Common Interests include the prime minister, the chief ministers of the four provinces and three other members, the reconstituted Council of Common Interests has replaced two federal ministers from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan with two federal ministers from Punjab. Although replacing the federal ministers for overseas Pakistanis and religious affairs with the federal ministers for finance and industries makes sense, this has resulted in the Council of Common Interests now having four members from Punjab and six of its members belonging to the PML-N. This outcome has raised eyebrows since it is being interpreted as the PML-N government being more interested in consolidating its power than addressing inter-provincial or Centre-provinces matters. The logical corollary of this perception is that it reflects the government has an eye to the looming elections (by 2018 at the latest). If this is correct, it betrays a lack of understanding on the part of the government regarding the fundamentally important role of the Council of Common Interests in the affairs of the federation, particularly at a juncture when the pattern of different parties being in power in some provinces and the Centre has become more or less the norm. The Council of Common Interests is constitutionally mandated to formulate and regulate policies on all matters in Part II of the Federal Legislative List, an outcome of the abolition of the concurrent list through the 18th Amendment. These subjects include the census, electricity, minerals, oil, gas, ports, federal regulatory authorities, the supervision and management of public debt, national planning and national economic co-ordination. Of these, the major issues to be addressed by the Council of Common Interests and which could be the cause of discord in the federation include approval of the census, national water policy, and the supply of gas to domestic consumers.
The affairs of the federation have been a sensitive area in our history. Before the 18th Amendment, the Council of Common Interests met irregularly and relatively infrequently. To address this problem, the 18th Amendment provided that the Council of Common Interests has to meet every 90 days. Such meetings may assume a greater importance now in the light of the sensitive and potentially fraught matters outlined above. The Council of Common Interests should not appear, as the reconstituted one does, as heavily loaded in favour of the Centre and Punjab, where the PML-N is in power. Nor should the reconstitution have been carried out in the arbitrary and constitutionally controversial manner it has. The more credibly that process is carried out, the more the Council of Common Interests would enjoy the credibility to mediate intra-provincial and Centre-provinces issues, which after all is its raison d’etre.