ISLAMABAD: Amid some excitement over the arrival of a convalescing Imran Khan, chairman of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told the National Assembly on Wednesday that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would hold a national consultation on security issues soon after the house passed the new government’s first budget next week.
The minister said the planned consultative meeting with leaders of all political parties and chiefs of the army and other security agencies would have a two-point agenda: safeguarding Pakistan’s independence and sovereignty in the context of US drone attacks on tribal areas, and terrorism.
The prime minister, he said, had “almost completed” his consultations within the government, including one with Chief of the Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and that the meeting would be convened “immediately after the budget”.
He said the government would come with a “working paper” for the meeting, which is likely to be held before the expected visit to Pakistan next month by US Secretary of State John Kerry for the first high-level talks between the two sides after the prime minister took office early this month following his PML-N party victory in the May 11 elections.
The interior minister’s statement on the consultative meeting came after Imran Khan, in his first speech to the new lower house after taking oath as its member, called for evolving a national policy to stop the drone attacks on the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), which he said not only violated Pakistan’s sovereignty and the United Nations Charter but also “links us with America’s war” in Afghanistan.
But the PTI chief seemed ambiguous about tackling terrorism within Pakistan about which he said “if we have to win this war we will have to make it our own war”, but suggested that Pakistan “disengage” itself from the American war to deprive the militants of their “motive for jihad”.
Chaudhry Nisar, who often poured scorn at Imran Khan’s rise as a political force before the elections, appeared surprisingly conciliatory towards him in the house, describing his speech as “the voice of a patriotic Pakistani” rather than a party leader and endorsing — rather going much beyond — his demand that the Supreme Court and the Election Commission order a check of voters’ fingerprints in at least four constituencies as a gauge to the extent of alleged rigging in the May 11 elections.
But in what could be a move to take wind out of the PTI’s sails, the interior minister, who said he also had some reservations about the elections, proposed that instead of only four constitutions, let there be checking of fingerprints for 10 seats, or for 20 or 30, by an independent commission. “We will be at your beck and call” so the true was sifted from the false, he added.
And he said officials found guilty of rigging should be sacked and the candidates who got themselves elected in by such tactics be barred from the house for three years.
The minister agreed with the PTI chief’s proposals for forming an independent National Accountability Bureau (NAB) that could act even against sitting ministers – or “even against the highest office-holder” -- and bringing a conflict of interest bill to bar holders of public offices from engaging in business, and said it should be done in all the provinces as Imran Khan said his party government would do it in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Starting with budget And responding to the interior minister’s proposal to have a common agenda to deal with the economic problems and energy shortages, Leader of Opposition Khursheed Ahmed Shah, while making brief remarks to welcome Imran Khan, proposed to make a beginning from the new budget, which has come under severe opposition criticism during six days of a general debate so far.
Mr Shah, who was the chief whip of the then ruling PPP in the previous National Assembly, recalled the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner and other four members of the Election Commission through consensus between the ruling and opposition parties and, referring to rigging complaints, said the commission had ignored some guidelines given by the previous government such as the use of a high-tech biometric system to guard against bogus votes.
Imran Khan, who could not come to the house earlier because of serious injuries he suffered during a fall from a forklift at a campaign rally in Lahore last month, was greeted on his arrival by desk-thumping by opposition members and clapping of his supporters in the visitors’ galleries, some of whom had even entered the press gallery. PML-N members did not clap, but some of them later praised the PTI chief’s speech during the budget debate as a positive development.
There was some quirk of fate in Imran Khan taking from Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, who defeated him on May 11 for the second time in a Lahore constituency – earlier this happened in 2002.
The PTI chief had also once bragged that if elected prime minister, he would not take oath from President Asif Ali Zardari, but that opportunity did not arise as his party came third in the National Assembly behind the PPP.
The PTI chief asked for an early opportunity to speak on the budget because he said he could not sit for a long time because he still seemed to be wearing some hard jacket under his shirt as a support for his injured back as he sat erect on his seat.
He came to the house after a gap of more than five years because his party had boycotted the 2008 elections along with several other parties while in the previous assembly elected in 2002, his was the only PTI seat in the 342-member house.