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More brickbats than bouquets for Nawaz in National Assembly

August 21, 2013
— File photo
— File photo

ISLAMABAD: There were more brickbats than bouquets for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the National Assembly on Tuesday for his first address to the nation after taking office that some opposition lawmakers saw as uninspiring at a time when Pakistan was faced with critical problems like terrorism and energy shortages.

Only a poor defence for the prime minister’s televised speech on Monday night came from some back-benchers of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N while some cabinet members who only briefly attended a sparsely attended sitting appeared shunning to confront opposition leaders like Sheikh Rashid Ahmed of the Awami Muslim League (AML) and Abdul Sattar Bachani of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), except for an outburst of protest from Abid Sher Ali.

It took only a little over 20 minutes for Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq to finish with a 16-item agenda of the first private members’ day of the current session which began on August 13, as all but two items were deferred either owing to the absence of or on the request of the authors of proposed private bills or motions.

And then, after the house adopted a resolution urging the government to “take effective steps to end beggary in Islamabad capital territory” and disposed of a call-attention notice about “inoperative electric transformers in most of the villages” of Buner district of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, members from both sides of the aisle found an unusually generous chair allowing them to speak on points of order for more than three hours on issues ranging from what the AML leader called “national beggary” in some apparent innuendos about the present government and what Mr Bachani saw as a sombre face of the prime minister during his 55-minute address.

While some PML-N members tried unsuccessfully to stop Sheikh Rashid’s tirade deriding what he called a “Friday bazaar of beggars in progress in Islamabad” or “begging on behalf of 18 crore Pakistani people” by those who had declared the “begging bowl” broken, but Sher Ali, a nephew of Mr Sharif, did get some unspecified remarks of Mr Bachani about the prime minister’s body language during his speech expunged by the speaker.

Mr Bachani said a leader’s job should be to rid the nation of dismay, recalling the examples of Field Marshal Ayub Khan, despite being a military dictator, inspiring the nation through an address at the start of the September 1965 war with India, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto providing hope to the nation after Pakistan’s defeat in the December 1971 war in then East Pakistan by getting over 90,000 prisoners of war released and getting back lost territory in the west, and then former prime minister Benazir Bhutto challenging terrorism at the cost of her life.

But, he said, Mr Sharif’s speech gave no such hope nor any policy in his Monday’s speech, apparently referring to a general feeling that the address mostly reiterated what had already been said by the government on different occasions, whether it be about offering dialogue to militants or the prospects of eliminating power cuts in five years.

As some ministers on the front row of the treasury benches seemed hardly perturbed by such attacks, PML-N member Sheikh Rohale Asghar from Punjab advised the opposition members to be careful in the choice of words while speaking and, while warning them that “if you will talk about Nawaz Sharif, then your leaders will also come under discussion”, said that whatever might have been said or not said in the speech, “I am not ready to accept that Nawaz Sharif does not love the people of this country”.

While more pro- and anti-Sharif observations followed, an apparently Islamist member of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Ali Mohammad Khan, ignited a controversy about executions for the first time in the present house by questioning the present government’s reported suspension of its decision to hang murder convicts so far spared by previous PPP-led government, calling the move contrary to Islamic injunctions on ‘qisas’, or capital punishment.

Amid arguments for and against hangings, Azra Fazal Pechuho, a prominent PPP member and sister of President Asif Ali Zardari, wondered how Islamic injunctions on ‘qisas’ could be applied in the presence of a faulty system of evidence that could send even innocent people to the gallows.

A first-time house member from Balochistan, Sayed Essa Nori of the Balochistan National Party, created a brief stir in the house as he insisted speaking in his Balochi mother tongue, instead of Urdu or English allowed by the house rules, but then, on being disallowed to do so, spoke in chaste Urdu as he talked about the situation in his troubled province, blaming unspecified government organisations for the problem of “missing persons”, complaining of the Gwadar port project being used to change the demographic picture in the area and the possibility of Afghan refugees becoming voters in the province.

Nawab Yousuf Talpur, a PPP veteran from Sindh, warned against carrying out what he called moves by the PML-N government to return subjects like health and education to the centre that had been devolved to provinces under the 18th amendment of the constitution, and called for preparing what he feared would a second rush of floodwaters that he said could endanger weak embankments in Sindh.