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October 5, 2017

View from the Gallary: Testing times for Nawaz associates


October 5, 2017

ISLAMABAD: Knowing fully well the testing times ahead, former premier Nawaz Sharif had nominated four of his topmost trusted lieutenants to the crucial cabinet slots – foreign affairs, finance, interior and defense. With a short span of time, three of them are under the spotlight facing varying degrees of challenges of the job at hand amid opposition’s onslaught. Pick of the lot Finance Minister Ishaq Dar is facing erosion of moral authority due to NAB reference he is facing amid calls by noisy and vocal opposition to resign. Ahsan Iqbal, the Interior Minister, is facing erosion of administrative authority – Monday’s NAB court Rangers episode seems trailer of the whole picture in the offing. And political adversaries are bent upon targeting the Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif for his frank and open style, especially when he emphasises “cleaning the house” from banned and proscribed organisations considered as assets by some strong vested groups in this land of the pure. Nobody is however concerned about Defence Minister Khurram Dastgir as his ministry acts as a post office and has been rendered toothless. So is generally free from any controversy. 

All this makes hot seat ofPremier Khaqan Abbasi crucial and demanding with every passing day. Mr Abbasi has to carry out the most difficult task at hand -- to strike a balance between PML-N’s hawks and doves. And tackle those in the ‘powerful establishment’ who still want to see former premier Sharif and his immediate family in a tighter corner. The countdown is continuing as per six months deadline given by the apex court in three NAB references being faced by elder Sharif and his three children.

Punjab CM Shahbaz Sharif, advising caution and moderation, is naturally very much concerned. Shahbaz has set his eyes on the premiership provided they sail through these testing times. And then thwart arch-rival Imran Khan’s ambitions for 2018. He and Ch Nisar, lately joined by Khawaja Saad, want the PML-N as a party and government to sail through these difficult times employing aggressive defense only in rare cases. They don’t want to annoy the powerful establishment to an extent where reproachment becomes a far cry, and party’s chances of a win in 2018 elections become bleak. Look at the Ahsan Iqbal episode. The minister complained erosion of authority at the hand of a force under him. Some within the ruling party think of it as a result of immature handling by the minister himself. There are no quick fixes in sight despite all the rhetoric and counters in media. As one side advocated, including the minister, that Chief Commissioner Islamabad didn’t allow the Rangers to take security control of the NAB court premises on Monday, and it was all done on autopilot. As a counter, a section of the media propagated a letter from SSP Security Islamabad who had sought Rangers’ security at the said premises. But everyone knows this letter from police was not automatically executable without a nod and direction from the civil administration. Now Ahsan Iqbal wants nothing short, but some head to roll over this administrative folly. Nothing short of it would establish his authority.

Let’s see whether it can be worked out amicably through a win-win situation for the two sides, or else. Ahsan Iqbal sounded like a rebel at the PML-N convention of Tuesday when the body re-elected former Premier Sharif as its head after clearing up of the legal lacuna. The agitation hardy Opposition calls Monday’s bill passage that helped Sharif get elect as party head despite disqualification as member of the legislator, a person-specific step. But Law Minister Zahid Hamid took pains in explaining to the National Assembly on Tuesday evening that this was a law introduced by dictator Musharraf in 2001-2 after the repeal of the same by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1975. Bhutto had inherited it from Ayub era. Zahid Hamid rebutted opposition’s claim that the amendment was introduced hurriedly to favour Sharif, saying the consensus Electoral Reforms Committee and subcommittee had earmarked the clause for deletion at the outset in late 2014. With Opposition Leader Khurshid Shah and Naveed Qamar seated no one from the opposition benches countered minister’s claim. Strange isn’t it? Perhaps. Opposition’s leading lights would do so sooner than later. Hope PTI brains like Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Shafqat Mahmood or Shireen Mazarri would rush to counter minister’s claims. If not on Assembly floor than in one of their favourite television talk show.

On a private members day on Tuesday, the proceedings of the National Assembly were unusually dull. Hardly 40-50 members present in all. But the opposition didn’t want to point out quorum with the business of individual members at hand. At the outset of the session, PPP’s Ijaz Jhakrani could hastily point out empty ministers’ rows -- almost all. Around 2-3 junior ministers were however tucked in at the rear and right corner of the treasury, but no mainstream minister or juniors were there. This was the time when Deputy Speaker Murtaza Abbasi realised that the timing of Assembly session and that of the federal cabinet meeting coincided – 5 pm the same evening. But, he hastily mentioned that Speaker Ayaz Sadiq had already given direction for the presence of relevant ministers whose ministry related agenda was to be taken up. But Mr Jhakrani amid necessary prodding from Naveed Qamar reminded the Speaker that had it been the Senate, ministers concerned wouldn’t have dared to ignore Speaker’s direction. Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani has established his authority through sheer hard work and devotion to the elected institution. A man of principles who now acts above party lines, Rabbani has set many high standards for parliamentary proceedings for months and years to come. Threatening to resign two times during the last 3 years, he has ensured ministers’ presence throughout this period. 

National Assembly is a different ball game. Here, the legislator has to get himself elect through party ticket and popular vote. In principal, the Speaker, Deputy Speaker should act above party line as custodians of the House. Practically, they are part and parcel of the treasury benches, and are informally involved behind the scenes in consultation with respective party leadership for guidance, direction. Speaker Ayaz Sadiq has earned respect and stature during this stint, even after his de-seating in 2015 and consequent re-election. Imran Khan’s comrades were never at ease with him then, the situation has changes a lot now. Same goes of Sheikh Rashid. He was always complaining about Speaker’s attitude towards him in 2014-15. 

There is a sea change now in terms of mutual respect and accommodation. But Raza Rabbani goes a step further. He was ignored two times during PPP’s tenure as Zardari sahib elevated cronies like Farooq Naik and Nayyar Bukhari. Even after delivering 18th amendment package to the Parliament, Rabbani was cornered, and he went silent. Under the PML-N regime, he was a consensus PPP-PML-N candidate with Ghafoor Haidri of JUI–F as Deputy Chairman. With Senate elections slated for March 2018, saner elements in the Upper House want another consensus for Rabbani’s reelection to the slot they believe he deserves the most.

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