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October 4, 2018

Passage of mini-budget: Testing time for PTI govt is over

ISLAMABAD: Running into their second eventful month in power laden with unlimited political rhetoric, the PTI government must be feeling relieved cutting the 2018-19 PML-N budget according to its needs.

But the forced patch work in budget still doesn’t give even a feel, glimpse of ruling party’s election manifesto and economic vision. Perhaps, delayed temporarily? Till then, the fast track “tabddeli” (change) is on hold. Got paused -- to be more appropriate. The resultant political low, gave ample opportunity to Bilawal Bhutto to launch a salvo of criticism minutes before the passage of the amended financial bill. Bilawal questioned the much trumpeted 100-day plan, the forgotten slogans of relief for the masses, the pessimism gripping the PTI voters and supporters. And what not. His criticism resonated a deaf silence from PTI front row ministers. Treasury back benchers more perplexed, subdued. Most of them have been trained to attack, not duck in such a way.

They did that during Opposition Leader Shahbaz Sharif’s address. Warned the same would be reciprocated for PM Khan, the dust settled immediately. Elder Zardari sahib would meaningfully smile, sitting close to Bilawal as he assessed performance of his rising political star as PPP feels could salvage them in weeks and months ahead. In money laundering cases, too. Bilawal is fast coming to terms with zigzags of Pakistani politics. Urdu language proficiency too. But his random mix, blend of Urdu and English sentences, is in demand in a society like ours for we are in love with everything imported and branded. PM Imran could only grin and duck sitting a few feet away as Bilawal used all the political arsenal at his disposal. Sitting nearby, Minister Fawad Chaudhry could be seen quipping with one or two to buck up his leader. This seems his primary job in the footsteps of every information minister of the past.

Remember Sheikh Rashid in the 90s with the then premier Nawaz Sharif. Then Mushahid Hussain’s services – a less crude, educated version. He nearly missed a repeat performance with Shahbaz Sharif this time. Senator Pervaiz Rashid was also handy. It is perhaps the job description.

Financial constraints forced their hands, everyone who matters on the treasury benches now claims. And here we are. In a nutshell, the whole effort revolved around cutting exorbitant developmental expenditure, curtailing imports and jacking up dwindling forex reserves. They tend to brush aside the recent rise of gas prices, petroleum prices they say are attached to international factors. For now, the incumbent government had to put on hold the imminent increase in electricity prices.

Naturally, they could not afford adding fuel to the barrage of criticism already pinching them hard. Last May, rightly or otherwise, the PTI finance team had cried foul when former premier Abbasi-led government had decided to present its 6th budget – a legally right but unnecessary adventure of the previous regime. But, ex-PM Abbasi led and Shahbaz Sharif steered team in last May could sense an outside chance to bounce back to power. So they came up with a spendthrift election budget, PTI has to right size even at the cost of criticism even in their first year in power.

Suited in his traditional attire, Premier Imran Khan came to witness passage of the “mini budget” PTI felt compelled to offer due to financial constraints. Bogged down by budgetary constraints, Khan knew in his heart of hearts that they could offer no relief to the masses in real terms. Now we hear a website has been established to show/monitor progress of PTI’s 100 days. Yes we live in internet, social media age. But economies are built on ground, and are not confined to cyber space. Cutting through rhetoric one also finds several committees formed at the centre and provinces for departmental/institutional reforms. Not to forget anti-encroachment operation in the capital and several Punjab cities. But on this day, all they could offer was just another spirited, blunt speech of Asad Umar, the socialist leaning financial Czar of a capitalistic economy. Asad didn’t waste opportunity hitting hard the PML-N on the circular debt issue, he claims is touching Rs1200 billion figure. As much as Rs450 billion added up only in last year. But then he went on to speak the ‘utter truth’ saying loadshedding in Balochistan and KP provinces was due to lack of new transmission systems the PML-N regime failed to install.

Asad however skipped to mention fast pace power generation during the last three years. Sitting nearby, Opposition Leader Shahbaz Sharif could not hold himself. Quickly he reminded PM Imran of his 2013 announcements regarding power generation in KP. It stood at minus 6 percent at the end of five years, the opposition leader confidently claimed. Like power generation which they had vowed to export to other provinces, Peshawar metro is another sour point in the past PTI performance with rising cost having reached around Rs75 billion.

Let’s not forget some light moments of the otherwise dry and dull supplementary budget proceedings. Premier Khan got thoroughly amused wearing a broad smile during the passage of finance bill clauses as Speaker Asad Qaiser went over board to please the treasury as he didn’t hear loud “Nos” and could clearly hear the relatively subdued “Ayes” of the treasury. No that treasury was getting defeated, but members were not loud enough. But the Speaker sheepishly declared the treasury having won the voice vote. Though he had to backtrack, and eventual head count made the treasury win the vote count. Moments earlier, Imran too got happily surprised by (over) efficiency of the Speaker and mentioned it to Minister Fawad Chaudhry who this day was tucked nearby at the seat of the foreign minister. Remember Sheikh Rashid acting the same way during ex-premier Jamali’s days. These days, Sheikh Rashid seems to have been downgraded a bit, though he sits at the far corner of the treasury front row. He seldom approaches his friend, PM Khan. Only the other day, official picture of his meeting with the PM was too formal, as they met in presence of Naeemul Haq. The press release of the meeting issued afterwards was too instructive for the Railways minister by any standards.

But the “son of Rawalpindi” knows the art of swimming through high and low tides of politics. Political opportunism at its best. So does Jahangir Khan Tareen, who finds himself in a political fix after the recent rejection of his appeal by the apex court against a life time ban on electoral politics. Now we all know the quest for South Punjab province can take a back seat. Bilawal Bhutto thought Khusro Bakhtiar, the former leader of South Punjab block, former PML-Q man having joined PML-N in 2013, had compromised on the issue after securing a ministry. But Khusro is too small a fry in the game of heavyweights. In fact it is the JKT factor. No ambiguities.