HOLDING aloft banners and shouting slogans, opposition MNAs mount a protest during the budget session on Tuesday.—INP
HOLDING aloft banners and shouting slogans, opposition MNAs mount a protest during the budget session on Tuesday.—INP

ISLAMABAD: It was amid a noisy protest by the opposition parties and scuffles that Minister of State for Revenue Hammad Azhar presented the first full-fledged budget of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf-led coalition government in the National Assembly here on Tuesday.

As expected, the opposition members carrying placards and wearing black armbands as mark of protest against the arrests of a number of their colleagues, including former president Asif Ali Zardari and Opposition Leader in the Punjab Assembly Hamza Shahbaz, gathered right in front of the treasury benches and kept on raising full-throated slogans like “Go Niazi Go” and “Say no to IMF budget”.

The opposition members also constantly targeted the prime minister’s sister Aleema Khan in their slogans, saying they would not accept the “Aleema Khan’s budget”.

A number of treasury members, including government ministers Shahryar Afridi, Ali Mohammad Khan and Faisal Vawda, formed a protective circle around Prime Minister Imran Khan to prevent him from coming into a possible physical contact with the rowdy opposition members who also tore up and threw into the air the copies of the budget speech and the assembly agenda.

Minor scuffles also broke during the protest when some of the protesting members were physically stopped by the treasury members from advancing towards the prime minister and the minister of state. Senior opposition members Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Khawaja Asif immediately intervened to prevent the situation from getting worse.

Helpless Speaker Asad Qaiser watched the whole proceedings without uttering a single word whereas his deputy Qasim Khan Suri was among those ruling party members who stood alert in front of Mr Azhar, whose speech could not be heard by those sitting in the galleries.

The treasury members thumped their desks when the minister finished his nearly one-and-a-half-hour long speech. Clad in white shalwar kameez and a black waistcoat, the prime minister also made some gestures towards the protesting opposition members before leaving the house, amid slogans by the opposition members Bhag Gaya, Bhag Gaya (ran away). Most of the time during the opposition’s protest, the prime minister was seen smilingly talking to his cabinet colleagues, including Murad Saeed, Fawad Chaudhry and Ali Zaidi, who were sitting behind him in the second row.

Earlier, the speaker started the assembly proceedings exactly at the scheduled time of 5pm with only 10 to 15 members present in the house. The prime minister came to the house at a time when the speaker was making an announcement to the house regarding the arrest of Mr Zardari, who is also an MNA, by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in the fake bank accounts case.

The speaker gave the floor to Mr Azhar for delivering the budget speech when no opposition member was present in the house. However, the opposition members started coming to the house one by one as soon as the minister started his budget speech.

Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) parliamentary leader Khawaja Asif was the first opposition member to arrive in the house, followed by Opposition Leader Shahbaz Sharif, former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Ahsan Iqbal and then the PPP members led by party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari.

The back benchers on the opposition side, mostly women, then one by one started bringing out placards inscribed with slogans in English and Urdu. An unidentified opposition lawmaker kept on calling Mr Azhar a “Munshi (bookkeeper) of the IMF (International Monetary Fund)” during the speech.

The opposition legislators all of a sudden stormed the steps of the speaker’s dais and blocked the front row of the treasury benches as soon as the minister started giving details of the proposed taxes in the budget for the fiscal year 2019-20.

Head count

And in the adjacent Senate, the opposition’s strategy to block the proceedings by pointing out lack of quorum failed when Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani declared the house in order after a head count.

The opposition members stayed in the lobby and sent PML-N’s Mushahidullah Khan to point out quorum. When the chairman declared the house in order and allowed the minister of state to lay before the house the budget documents, the opposition members returned to the house and started raising slogans. The Senate session was adjourned till Friday morning by the chairman within nine minutes. Under the constitution, the senators have no power to approve or reject the budget and they can only submit their recommendations to the National Assembly for consideration.

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2019