PRIME Minister Imran Khan making a speech during the National Assembly session on Thursday.—AFP
PRIME Minister Imran Khan making a speech during the National Assembly session on Thursday.—AFP

• Says no confusion over coronavirus handling
• Stirs controversy by calling OBL a ‘martyr’
• Assails India for seeking to destabilise Pakistan
• Criticises opposition over ‘NAB-Niazi alliance’ slogan
• Opposition challenges PM to live debate on government policies

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday made a surprise appearance in the National Assembly to personally respond to the criticism made by the opposition during more than one-week-long general debate on the federal budget and forcefully defended his policies aimed at handling multiple crises, including the Covid-19 pandemic, being faced by the country.

During his 75-minute speech, which was later termed a “lecture” by PML-N’s Khawaja Asif, the prime minister, besides defending the economic policies of the government, also spoke at length on all key national issues, including the novel coronavirus, locusts, foreign policy and the ongoing accountability process in the country, and presented an overview of the 22-month performance of his government.

The prime minister, while discussing the country’s relations with the United States, stirred a new controversy in the country when he called slain top Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden a ‘Shaheed’ (martyr).

PML-N parliamentary leader Khawaja Asif later took the prime minister to task for “declaring” Osama Bin Laden a martyr, saying the Al Qaeda leader was a “terrorist” who had “ruined our country”.

An independent MNA from the country’s tribal areas, Mohsin Dawar, also raised the issue and sought an explanation from the treasury benches. He later protested over the remarks and staged a walkout when he got no response.

PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who was present in his Parliament House chamber, also rushed to the assembly hall in the middle of the prime minister’s speech to respond to him.

The PPP chairman gave the response, but only after departure of the prime minister from the house which was facilitated by Speaker Asad Qaiser by declaring a break for Asr prayers as soon as the prime minister finished his speech.

This was for the first time that the speaker had suspended the proceedings for the prayers since the start of general discussion on the budget on June 15, apparently to prevent the PPP chairman from taking the floor in the presence of the prime minister.

Covid-19 handling

Responding to the opposition’s criticism of the government’s handling of coronavirus, the prime minister categorically stated that there was no confusion in the government policy to handle Covid-19 and from the day one he was “consistent” and clear in his mind on the issue of imposition of lockdown in the country. He challenged the opposition to hear all his speeches and point out the contradiction.

“They say again and again that there was confusion ... if there was one country whose government did not have confusion, it was ours,” the premier said amid desk-thumping by the treasury members.

Giving example of India, the prime minister said according to the reports, the strict lockdown there had pushed 34 per cent population below poverty line and the hospitals in Delhi and Mumbai were full and facing difficulties.

The prime minister said the government had imposed a lockdown when the country had only 26 cases and no deaths. At that point, he added, the provinces on their own started imposing lockdown after seeing it happening in other parts of the world. He said he and his team had the fear from day one that the lockdown model used by the western countries and China could not be copied in Pakistan because the situation in the subcontinent was “very different”.

Today, he said, the whole world was saying that lockdown had more negative effects than the impact of coronavirus. He said his government was the first to talk about a smart lockdown.

Mr Khan once again warned the nation that a “very difficult situation” was in front of them and said that if people took precautions then the country’s health system was sufficient to meet the crisis. “If we spend this month while following precautions then we can save ourselves from bad effects (of the virus),” he said.

Foreign policy

The prime minister termed his “successful foreign policy” a hallmark of the present government. In the past, he said, Pakistan had to face “humiliation” when, despite supporting the US in the war on terror, the country was asked to “do more” and blamed even for the US failure in Afghanistan.

Mr Khan said Pakistan had to face embarrassment when the Americans came to Abbottabad and “martyred” Osama Bin Laden, saying the whole world “abused” the country after the incident. “Our ally comes to our own country to kill someone without informing us? And 70,000 Pakistanis have already died in their war. Look at the humiliation that caused to all the Pakistanis who were abroad,” he said.

Mr Khan quoted former US military chief Admiral Mike Mullen as having stated during a Senate hearing that Washington was carrying out drone attacks with the permission of the Pakistan government.

The prime minister said that after coming to power, his government had declared that Pakistan would no more participate in the American war. Today, he said, the relationship with the US was based on trust and President Donald Trump had always met him with respect and “requested our help in bringing peace to Afghanistan”.

Talking about India, he said, New Delhi was making efforts to destabilise Pakistan. He said Pakistan had effectively exposed India at the UN and international level after its illegal decision to annex occupied Kashmir last year. He termed the Indian prime minister “fascist” and declared that the role he played in the massacre of people while he was the chief minister of Gujraat showed that “he is not a normal person”.

He said Pakistan was making efforts for reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran at the request of their leadership.

Economy

The prime minister refuted the opposition’s charge that the government was hiding its failures behind coronavirus. Quoting the figures, he claimed that the country’s economy was improving prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Khan said he did not feel “ashamed” while collecting money for the people and the country. He once again blamed the past governments for the present poor state of economy.

The prime minister said he led an austerity drive to set example for others and cut expenditure of the PM House and reduced to half its staff of 534. He also presented a comparison between the expenditures on his foreign trips and those of the former rulers.

Though the prime minister did not make any comment on the recent decision of the Balochistan National Party (BNP) to quit the ruling coalition, he said a record allocation had been made for Balochistan in the development budget. He requested the provinces to fulfil their pledge of giving three per cent of the National Finance Commission share to the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas. He said these areas needed attention as India could also use them to fulfil its designs.

Accountability

Referring to the opposition’s allegations of political victimisation, the prime minister said he had no enmity with anyone and 90 per cent of the cases which the opposition leaders were facing had been registered against them prior to his coming into power. He expressed his surprise over the opposition calling the actions of the National Accountability Bureau as a result of “NAB-Niazi Alliance”. He said they had not made any recruitment in NAB, but still they had to face abuses.

Mr Khan, who is always criticised for his long absence from the assembly, said that he wanted to see parliament functioning and see it holding debates on national issues. He said the country could not make any progress if there would be no meaningful and real accountability.

Opposition speeches

Taking the floor after the prime minister had left the house, the PPP chairman said Mr Khan’s speech was the speech of a “puppet” and it was meant for the “selectors”. He once again lashed out at the prime minister over the handling of Covid-19, saying Mr Khan was not ready to listen to any doctor or health expert.

“It is like the time when there was a war in Kargil, but we kept saying that there is no war and our soldiers were being martyred. Similarly, now the doctors and paramedics are getting infected with the disease and unfortunately succumbing to the disease, but our prime minister refuses to accept the situation,” he added.

Mr Bhutto-Zardari ridiculed the prime minister’s claim of having successful foreign policy. “India has been elected as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council securing 184 votes out of 192 and the prime minister calls it a good foreign policy,” he added.

The PPP chairman and PML-N’s Khawaja Asif challenged PM Khan to have a live debate with them in parliament or on TV on his policies.

Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2020