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October 3, 2018

Docile treasury benchers, belligerent opposition

ISLAMABAD: Aggressive defence is the buzz word for PTI ministers these days as they try to deflect opposition’s onslaught in defending the under discussion supplementary budget – apparently more of a bureaucratic handy work than an economist’s brainy output.

Sometimes, it works. At most occasions, it proves short lived in utility and scope. Take for example a short time walk out by opposition legislators on Tuesday, primarily PML-N’s. Defense Minister Pervaiz Khattak should have been more cautious and sober. Speaker Asad Qaiser more generous and less partisan in silencing mic of an opposition legislator to give floor to Mr Khattak, other ministers. Unguarded, off the hook remarks by the minister questioning ability of the opposition legislator to read even English language text aggravated the situation more. Parliamentary affairs minister looked helpless, clueless during all this unnecessary fuss. More to come, if situations are not properly handled.

Real test of the PTI government however starts with macro level steps, initiatives. Real austerity, financial discipline, turning around sick units, bureaucratic reforms etc. But one aspect of governance they should never ignore i.e. rapprochement with the opposition of the day. That entails the critical issue of the South Punjab province too that could open up floodgates of such demands. Treasury also needs to come clean and accommodating on the ToRs and working of the Parliamentary Committee formed to investigate 2018 elections related complaints. Then the issue of handing Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) chairmanship to the opposition. Going by the norms and traditions, if the PAC should be headed by an opposition legislator, there should be no fixation of it being headed by only the Opposition Leader Shahbaz Sharif. The gentleman already has his plate full in the new role.

On one count in the new National Assembly, PTI has been successful so far – maintenance of quorum. Ministers’ presence is marginally better compared to previous government’s. But this is only the first working session after the inaugural. Premier Khan graced the House on this day for a few minutes as legislators and ministers made a beeline to meet and greet. So did Asad Umar, the financial Czar of this poor man’s economy. We hear he is planning something out of the box to turn the economy around, in weeks and months. Nobody expects miracles in this scientific age. But then PTI had set its own benchmarks throughout the last a few years in opposition, and it haunts them like anything. PM Imran seemed in a serious mood as he stayed put at the hot seat displaying a hyper active body language, nodding, interjecting with short replies to flattering, pleasing words and phrases. We learn he is not happy with the performance of his media gurus at the centre and provinces, especially the Punjab. PM’s Special Assistant Iftikhar Durrani tries aggressive defence in television talk shows.

But, the effort is not enough as most of the PTI bandwagon still lives in the past referring to follies and misdeeds of the previous governments. Soon, they would have to learn to come up with their own, home cooked good governance. Minister Fawad Chaudhry is confident, can speak well. But he is sometimes annoyingly blunt which doesn’t fit in his present role. Less tactful, a lone ranger with less brainy strategy.

Shafqat Mahmood is out of action, tactfully, meaningful silence as he confines himself to relatively small ministry. The KP info minister Mushtaq Ghani is tactfully humble. The buck however stops at Punjab. Here the CM lacks oratory, communication skills; his information minister lacks articulation, composure. Such a haphazard situation haunts treasury at the National Assembly too. More worse in the Senate where the new Leader of the House, Shibli Faraz, has to take pains to run the things in scarce ministers’ presence and lack of satisfactory answers. Mr Faraz has now threatened to be part of the opposition walk out if the situation doesn’t improve.

At the National Assembly on Tuesday, it was now turn of Defence Minister Pervaiz Khattak to ease out a bit subdued treasury benches, receiving opposition volleys of criticism on the PTI mini-budget.

So he jumped the gun predicting the PTI would stage a thumping win after completion of the present five-year tenure. In the same breath, he highlighted achievements of his chief ministership tenure in KP province. Well, if that was the case, he and Asad Qaiser would not be sitting in the National Assembly. As they fought with Atif Khan for CMship, the leader in Imran Khan neutralised all, installing a relatively unknown by all standards. Like Punjab, where PTI is being criticised for installing a docile, muted chief minister, KP doesn’t lag behind on this count. So as per plans, it is only Premier Khan who orders. And receives the resultant kudos and criticism. Rest just comply.

Zartaj Gul is another highlight from PTI back benches – the women who defeated Leghari sardars in their political bastion. A regular participant of the TV talk shows, she can speak well – though implying over simplistic logic at times. Like, she defended the recent hallmark Rs2.3 million PM House “buffaloes auction” of the arguing it could fetch scores of hand pumps in her native underdeveloped DG Khan, at Rs4.5k each piece. Elimination of poverty and under development was the logic we heard from PM Khan when he installed Punjab CM, Sardar Buzdar. Fair enough. But how come a man from an underdeveloped area stands automatically qualified for holding a key slot without ability or expertise. The expertise, ability and devotion doesn’t belong to a particular area or class. It comes naturally, and is nurtured by prudent and forward looking leaderships. Flexing of muscles by the CM is eagerly awaited at a time senior minister Abdul Allem Khan is taking pains in clarifying he is not the de facto ruler of the Punjab.

With a rich 5-year experience to run the National Assembly as Speaker, Sardar Ayaz Sadiq may prove a handy middle order for this PML-N’s opposition innings. On Tuesday he raised a pertinent point of order. How come the government install two full fledge ministers – Ghulam Sarwar as petroleum and Umar Ayub for water and power -- in the same energy division? The Assembly has one standing committee for energy division. If this is found illegal, what will become of the ministers’ orders till date? Parliamentary affairs minister Ali Khan had no clue. More to come from Sardar Ayaz in the days to come.