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Naya Pakistan, nayi assembly?

Updated August 14, 2018

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BAKHTAWAR and Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari taking a selfie during the inaugural session of the National Assembly on Monday.—Online
BAKHTAWAR and Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari taking a selfie during the inaugural session of the National Assembly on Monday.—Online

ISLAMABAD: Tactful smiles, handshakes and an unusual silence were the hallmarks of the 15th National Assembly session, where old and new faces put up their best appearances on Monday.

Quite unlike regular sessions, the packed hall of MNAs was uncharacteristically subdued — no jeering or name-calling despite generous displays of both in the run-up to the July 25 election.

The absence of political stalwarts loomed heavy over the assembly, as once intrinsic figures such as Chaudhry Nisar, Khawaja Saad Rafique, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Mehmood Khan Achakzai among others were no longer part of the Assembly — all owing to defeat in the polls. Close by in an accountability court, Nawaz Sharif, who not very long ago was the leader of this assembly, was being produced from his cell in Adiala jail.

Many had expected opposition parties to view the oath-taking ceremony as a ripe opportunity to give the PTI a taste of its own medicine by creating a ruckus. But despite pent-up frustrations, both sides maintained silence, even though a handful of the key rabble-rousers were present.

It was beginning to look dull. In fact, if it wasn’t for the piercing ‘Jeay Bhutto’ sloganeering of PPP’s Shagufta Jumani, who suddenly leapt out of her seat and led her colleagues to belt out full-throated cheers when Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari’s names were called out, the session would have concluded without event.

Bilawal was dapper in a suit jacket over a white shalwar kameez. Accompanied by his father and sisters, Bilawal was all smiles as he was ushered into the building by Senator Sherry Rehman, who was seen shepherding the lot. The mood in the PPP camp was celebratory. Bilawal was focused and relaxed seated beside party stalwarts Khursheed Shah and Naveed Qamar. He often stood to greet young and old MNAs across parties as they made their way from the stage to greet BB’s son on his maiden session. PPP’s Shazia Marri literally wore her enthusiasm on her sleeve when she walked to the rostrum in a shirt emblazoned with the acronym “PPP” and the party logo, an arrow.

Family members of MNAs were visible in large numbers in the gallery. Conspicuous by absence, however, was the family of prime minister-in-waiting Imran Khan. His wife, Bushra Imran, and sisters, Uzma, Aleema, Rani and Rubina Khanum, were absent, as were his sons Sulaiman and Qasim.

Mr Khan sat in the first row; steely, smiling only briefly, and bouncing his staple wooden rosary from one hand to the other. After his turn at the rostrum, which was met with much applause from his party (perhaps owing to Jumani breaking the ice earlier), Mr Khan was relaxed and engaged in animated discussions with Shah Mehmood Qureshi who sat beside him.

The seat next to Mr Khan which is occupied by the prime minister was respectfully left vacant ahead of his swearing in ceremony on August 18. However, it was briefly taken by none other than PTI’s newest recruit Aamir Liaquat Hussain, who in his excitement to greet Mr Khan, plonked down next to him in the prime minister seat for a few moments.

Among the most interesting exchanges was the greeting between Bilawal and Mr Khan. Mr Khan stood from his seat to meet the young parliamentarian.

In the PML-N camp, the mood was sombre. Marriyum Aurangzeb, who is usually quite eminent, sat in one of the last benches with Rana Sanaullah, the ‘chief antagoniser’ from the party. Both were largely dispirited, only rising when Shahbaz’s name was called.

Party leader Shahbaz Sharif sat at the front, flanked by the handful of PML-N bigwigs still remaining in the Assembly, including Ahsan Iqbal and Khawaja Asif. While Shahbaz had smiled in the early moments, towards the end, he slumped down in his chair with his neck resting on its back. One of the last names to be called out, Shahbaz’s turn at the register was marked by unprecedented applause and enthusiastic cheers from PML-N, as even the otherwise quiet back benchers chanted “sher aaya, sher aaya!”. In that moment, the assembly appeared to have come to life. Some in the gallery, too, joined in, and slogans both for and against PML-N resounded, prompting the speaker to warn them of possible eviction from the chamber.

As Shahbaz returned to his seat, he shook hands with Bilawal, but walked to his seat without acknowledging Khan — perhaps an indication that this entire charade of silence was the calm before a storm.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that Imran Khan and Shahbaz Sharif did not shake hands during the National Assembly session. An NA handout suggests that they did. The story has been revised to reflect this.

Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2018