Tricky agenda setting! – Nusrat Javed

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I just could not convince myself for staying put in Parliament House, when the national assembly speaker announced a 20-minute break for the evening prayer.

One seriously felt cheated; for the newspapers I had read Monday morning prepared me for a “stormy sitting.” Prominently displayed was a single-column “news”. Through the same, the PML-N media managers had manipulated people like me to believe that the main opposition party in the lower house of parliament, with a formidable strength of 84 members, would compel the government to let “public representatives” consider but one-point agenda during the Monday sitting of the national assembly. Of course, the unbearable rate of inflation spreading and deepening gloom among millions of Pakistanis was projected as the intended agenda.

One anticipated a doubly “stormy” sitting after knowing that Pakistan Stock Exchange had almost crashed Monday by hitting the lowest point after a long gap of 70 days. Reporting the panic selling, some commentators also claimed that investors were feeling insecure due to widely spread rumours, insisting that Prime Minister Imran Khan had actively begun contemplating the idea of “sacking the team” he had borrowed from the IMF for extracting a “bailout package” of six billion US dollars.

Although not elected to any house of parliament and having no history of association with Imran Khan and his Tehrik-e-Insaf, Dr. Hafiz Sheikh was appointed as an “advisor” on Finance with absolute command and control of the ministry. Even the duly elected ministers can only dream enjoying such control over departments under them in our country.

Inducting Hafiz Sheikh, Imran Khan had also appeared as if heartlessly ditching Asad Umer. This corporate-wizard had joined the PTI many years ago. After elected to the national assembly for the first time from Islamabad in 2013, he had exclusively been focusing to lynch the economic and fiscal policies of the PML-N government. Doing this, he often projected a radically different strategy and work plan to turn our economy around and push it on the route to growth and prosperity. No wonder, immediately after taking over in August 2018, Imran Khan appointed him as the Finance Minister. He was also given a “free hand” to execute his dream, which looked so doable on paper and through the speeches he had been delivering during the previous assembly.

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In the larger interest of the country and its stability, the hardcore loyalists of Imran Khan swallowed the sacrifice of Asad Umer. After a while, however, he was brought back to the federal cabinet as the Minister of Planning and Development. That turned him to a weighty stakeholder of the economic and fiscal management for another time.

Besides Dr. Sheikh, the Imran government had also installed Dr. Raza Baqir as an all-powerful governor of the State Bank of Pakistan. This office already enjoyed a secure term of three years. Each government since 2008 shivers to remove the SBP governor and often feels shy of tinkering with his or her “autonomy.”

Yet, while lending Dr. Baqir to the State Bank of Pakistan, the IMF continued to demand that his “autonomy” must be redefined and expanded through the passage of a comprehensive law. For the lack of a clear majority in the Senate, the government could yet not deliver on the promise.

Even without being “fully empowered” with the required law, the SBP Governor had asserted his authority to substantially reduce the value of Pak rupee vis-à-vis the US dollar. He had also enforced and firmly maintained a rate of interest, which the native investors keep insisting discourages growth in any sector of the Pak economy.

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London and New York based players of the slush and hedge funds etc., however, were alleged to have been relishing a windfall due to the alluring rate of interest that Baqir had introduced. The government had also been feeling good about it, because the “hot money,” which a lucrative rate of interest brought to Pakistan prevented further devaluation of the Pak rupee and projected a “healthy” picture of our foreign exchange reserves.

Of late, however, the Prime Minister reportedly began having second thoughts. He seems willing to accept the argument that the IMF-gifted “experts” were fast pinching his vote bank with perpetual slowing down of the business activity and the record-touching rate of inflation. Through his tweets and public statements, Imran Khan also began acknowledging the pain of inflation; also pledged firm action against “mafias,” he suspected were responsible for creating “artificial shortages” of items like the wheat and sugar to make overnight millions.

Probably, his vows to take on “market manipulators” made many to eagerly gulp rumours, predicting the sacking of IMF-gifted experts. I still have serious doubts, though; some other time I might explain as to why.

Even otherwise, I was more eager to witness how the opposition would display its “protest” against inflation during the national assembly sitting of Monday evening.

Absolute disappointment hit me, though, the moment I took my seat in the national assembly. Except Rana Tanvir, no lead star of the PML-N was sitting on benches allotted to them in the front row. Khawaja Asif’s absence was the most conspicuous. Without his loud voice and pushy clout, the PML-N mostly fails to get the Speaker’s attention.

Yet, immediately after the question hour the PTI government took a cunning initiative to pre-empt any noise from the opposition benches. Ali Ahmad Khan, the state minister of parliamentary affairs, “volunteered” a motion. It promised to dedicate the Tuesday sitting to exclusively discuss the issue of inflation.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari had walked into the house, meantime. But apparently he came there to mark his presence and extend moral support to his party MNAs for resisting the government’s effort of extending the shelf life of a “law,” which the President had enforced through an ordinance many months ago.

While agreeing to wait until Tuesday for discussing inflation, the PPP also tried to assert its relevance by supporting the demand that a “Special House Committee” should be formed to probe into the varsity of stories, claiming the alleged escape/release of a high profile spokesperson of the terrorist outfits, Ehsan Ullah Ehsan.

Mohsin Dawar, the PTM representative, asked for it through a point of order, when the house met again after the prayer-break. Syed Navid Qamar of the PPP delivered a well-articulated speech to support the demand. The government preferred to ignore it and pressed for extending the shelf life of another ordinance. The opposition prevented it by pointing out the lack of quorum and the house had to be adjourned until Tuesday for the lack of it.