ISLAMABAD: While the government wants to put the matter behind it, the controversy over the telephonic conversation between Prime Minister Imran Khan and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo just won’t go away.

The combined opposition in the Senate asked the prime minister to explain himself on the floor of the house what had really happened.

Senator Sherry Rehman of the Pakistan Peoples Party pointed out that the United States had apparently released the transcript of the phone call, and that the Foreign Office in Islamabad — rather surprisingly — had altered its position on the matter, seemingly accepting the US version of the story. She said that until recently, the Foreign Office had been challenging the US State Department’s readout, but now it was saying it didn’t want to and desired to bury the hatchet before Mr Pompeo’s arrival in the coming week.

Ms Rehman argued that the call should have been made between the US secretary of state and Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi. The prime minister, she said, had reduced his stature by taking the call and speaking to an official who was not a direct counterpart. “Tomorrow they will make you talk to the under-secretary of state,” she remarked.

She went on to say that only the person who spoke to the US secretary of state would be able to reveal the contents of the conversation and explain what assurances — if any — were given to Mr Pompeo. Ms Rehman said that Imran Khan must accept his responsibilities and that he is not the prime minister of his party — the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf. “He is the prime minister of Pakistan and we do not want to have him embarrassed,” said Ms Rehman, who seems to have upped her activity in the Senate after losing the office of opposition leader.

Opposition members in Senate say curtailing provincial share in NFC award contravenes law

Mian Raza Rabbani, former chairman of the Senate, agreed with Ms Rehman’s assertions and said that the prime minister must explain what transpired during the phone call. “This is the demand of the combined opposition in the Senate,” he stressed.

Acting Senate Chairman Saleem Mandviwalla said that he would ask Mr Qureshi, the foreign minister, to come to the Senate for an explanation. Mr Mandviwalla said that he also intended to write to the prime minister.

The NFC award

Earlier, Mr Rabbani warned the government against reducing provincial shares in the next National Finance Commission (NFC) award. He said a summary moved by the former caretaker finance minister, pending with the government, recommended a cutback in provincial shares in revenues from 57.5 to 49.3 per cent.

Wondering how the caretaker government could have thought of this proposal, he referred to Section 3-A of Article 160 of the Constitution, according to which the share of the provinces, in each award of the NFC, shall not be less than the share given in the previous award. He said the Council of Common Interests (CCI) was the forum to debate if national security needs have increased. He said federal expenditure should be curtailed instead of reducing the share of the provinces.

Mr Rabbani warned that in case any attempt was made to violate the constitutional provision, the Senate would oppose it.

The Senate acting chairman observed that a ‘suggestion’ by caretaker ministers did not mean much. “This house will not allow any such thing to happen,” he said.

Leader of the House in the Senate Syed Shibli Faraz said the caretaker minister should not have made such a recommendation. He said assured the house that the government had no intention to violate the Constitution and that the finance minister had already stated — unequivocally — that the NFC award was a priority and that the government realised that it had already been delayed.

Sherry Rehman expressed concern over the government’s plan to merge all media regulatory bodies to form a new unified governing agency. “It would be a massive change.” She lamented that friends — and not stakeholders — had been consulted, adding that the way this unilateral ‘decision’ had been announced was undemocratic.

The Senate will meet again on Friday (today) at 10.30am.

Published in Dawn, August 31st, 2018

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