‘Written promise of good behaviour’ By Nusrat Javed

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Parliamentary history of our luckless country is replete with events, most of which were tragic while many have forced us to feel embarrassed as a nation. Yet, ‘the precedent,’ the National Assembly of Pakistan has set Monday, will certainly be considered unique by all standards.

It is a firmly established practice that the Opposition Leader in the National Assembly initiates the general debate on the set of proposals, a Finance Minister presents for the new fiscal year through his budget speech. Being the president of the largest opposition party in this assembly, Shehbaz Sharif was thus all set to deliver a speech Monday afternoon.

The press gallery was unusually crowded even during the frightening times of Corona, when the assembly resumed its sitting after the week-end break. Parliamentary reporters eagerly awaited Shehbaz Sharif’s speech. Most of them were given to believe that the opposition leader had been holding lengthy brainstorming sessions with his aides to prepare the text of the expected speech.

A core group, comprising academics like Ms. Ayesha Ghaus Pasha and businesspersons like Miftah Ismail, had diligently combed the bulky budget documents for him. A group of veteran parliamentarians like Shahid Khaqan Abbassi, Khurram Dastagir Khan and Professor Ahsan Iqbal then furnished the attention catching spins. Apparently, his speech should have consumed more than an hour to complete.

The established parliamentary practice also demands that general-debate-opening speech by the opposition leader should be heard patiently. Except the occasional and usually soft heckling, people from the treasury benches should not try to interrupt his flow by raising trivial points.

In spite of being a very experienced parliamentarian, however, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the foreign minister, sprang up from his seat to seek the permission of speaking on a point of order, when the Opposition Leader had yet not even finished the first three sentences of his speech. Shehbaz Sharif sat back to let the foreign minister speak.

Asad Qaisar, the Speaker, attempted to pretend being strict and adamant about going by the book. Like a kind teacher, he also tried to remind the treasury benches that the opposition leader deserved attentive silence. No one from the government side cared listening to him. Amin Gandapur, another vocal minister with the reputation of a massive bully, also stood up to demand the floor rather and while banging the thick budget documents on their benches the ruling party backbenchers fiercely began chanting the slogan of “CHOOR-CHOOR (thief)” to embarrass Shehbaz Sharif.

The government, no doubt, was deliberate in preventing the launch of Shehbaz Sharif’s speech with the clear intent of getting equal. But to be fair, Shaukat Fayyaz Tarin’s speech on Friday was also subverted with spirited slogan chanting from the opposition benches. You could not hear a word of it while sitting in the press gallery and the Prime Minister needed headphones to carefully listen to this speech.

The ruling party members felt doubly offended, because the government was not the target of opposition’s rude refrains in general terms. All slogans had rather focused on the person of Prime Minister. The PTI legislators were thus not willing to spare Shehbaz Sharif on a day presumably reserved for him, exclusively.

Absolute bedlam is certainly not shockingly new for Asad Qaisar. Since the surfacing of the current National Assembly through viciously contested election of July 2018, things had seldom been smooth and orderly in this house. The reality of a deeply polarized environment rather compelled us to live with it, increasingly.

In view of the peculiar history of the current national assembly, the Speaker should have asked Shehbaz Sharif to concentrate on finishing his speech. But he knew the government’s game and visibly wanted to facilitate the successful execution of it. His thick skin never feels tempted to develop the reputation of a judicious arbiter about him.

Without any solid ground, the Speaker instantly suspended the house for “twenty minutes.” And then invited the government and opposition leaders to his chambers for reaching an agreement on how to proceed with holding of general debate on budgetary proposals.

He had announced the break at 4:27pm. But even after the lapse of three long hours, there appeared no chance for resuming the sitting. And I felt forced to walk out of the parliament house to meet the deadline for this column.

While anxiously roaming in parliamentary corridors, I could collect from multiple sources that the government representatives were loudly rude and accusing while ‘negotiating’ with opposition representatives in the Speaker’s chambers. They specially named some opposition legislators and blamed them for consistently using unprintable innuendos against the person of Imran Khan and his dear and near ones. Their grievances didn’t end there.

Qadir Patel, a street-hardened PPP MNA from Lyari of Karachi, was also blamed for frequently targeting Murad Saeed, a youthful minister of communication, always taking the lead in deriding Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. Patel employs very colorful language to get even with Saeed. But it is extremely difficult to instantly declare his deadpan style and coining of juicy phrases, “unparliamentarily.” The demolishing bites he invents always show the impact, only after hitting the intended target.

I have been covering parliamentary proceedings since 1985. And my accumulated experience compels me to forcefully state that keeping in view the definitely indecent and often ugly precedents, set by the current national assembly, Shehbaz Sharif should have insisted to complete his speech Monday. He could have easily done the same by wearing headphones.

While sitting in the press gallery, most journalists would have certainly felt that his speech was drowned in ceaseless heckling from the treasury benches. But the microphones, installed on the benches allotted to the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader are hi-tech. They muffle unwanted noise and merely amplify what the speaker is saying.

I am sure that all our 24/7 channels would have instantly cut live to show the complete speech of Shehbaz Sharif to their viewers. For the idiot box, the cameras would have stayed focused on the mid-close of Shehbaz Sharif and noise around him was set to stay muffled thanks to the use of hi-tech filters.

In the name of seeking order, Asad Qaisar, the slavish Speaker of the National Assembly, had rather laid a trap to deprive Shehbaz Sharif of the perfect opportunity of delivering a comprehensive speech. It could, perhaps, have also demolished the feel-good message that the truckload of this government’s media managers kept spinning regarding the state of our economy these days. Shehbaz Sharif certainly furnished another “good day” for official promoters of the feel stories by walking into the trap, Asad Qaisar had cunningly laid to preempt his launch.

From the Speaker’s chambers, the PML-N representatives had walked out while claiming that the ministers present there were “deliberately behaving rude and provocative.” Yet, after the opposition’s walk out, the government representatives wanted to connect the Prime Minister’s Office to seek (fresh) instructions.

I have it from highly credible sources that the prime minister’s office had firmly told its managers of the parliamentary business that no assurances of calm and respect should be given to the opposition, just like that. To get there, the opposition must give it, “in writing,” that from now on its members would “behave”, whenever Prime Minister Imran Khan is present in the house or takes the floor to make a speech.

Without furnishing the “written promise of good behaviour,” the opposition parties should not expect any “respect” from the treasury benches.

Shehbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari should now be prepared to face fiercer heckling than their supporters had been displaying, whenever the Prime Minister and the rest of his colleagues stood to speak in the House.