ISLAMABAD: Dismissing increasingly loud opposition chatter about a ‘minus one’ formula, Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday vowed to go after “mafias and cartels” and announced that his government was now embarking upon a plan of massive institutional reforms.
“This is the only solution available to us to bring Pakistan out of trouble,” Mr Khan said during his second appearance in the National Assembly in five days.
“Reforms are inevitable now. There is no option,” declared the prime minister while addressing an opposition-less house amidst desk-thumping and sloganeering by the treasury members.
The speech came soon after completion of the budget process with the passage of supplementary demands for grants worth Rs544 billion in the absence of the opposition members, who had walked out of the house after having a verbal clash with the treasury members.
“There can be no more tinkering with the system. Be ready for drastic changes. Whenever we will go for changes, the beneficiaries of a corrupt order will resist it,” the prime minister said in his 44-minute address.
“The money that should have been spent on education, health, clean drinking water, hospitals and on welfare of the poor is being poured into loss-making (state) institutions.”
“The power sector is the biggest curse (for the country). We inherited huge loans in the power sector obtained during the last 10 years,” Mr Khan said, also listing the Pakistan International Airlines, Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM) and Pakistan Railways among other loss-making institutions.
Vows to go after mafias and cartels, carry out institutional reforms
Unlike his previous speech in the National Assembly during which he had mostly spoken about the performance of his 22-month-old government, this time the prime minister also dwelt upon the future plans of his government.
Refuting reports about differences within the ruling party and its allies, the prime minister said the opposition was talking about “minus one formula” only to save its corruption.
“They (the opposition) don’t know that even if minus one happens, the others will not spare them,” the prime minister said without any reference, thus fueling the speculations already going on in political circles about a possible change in the set-up.
Referring to the opposition leaders’ statements against the government’s plan to privatise the PSM, the prime minister said the people who had ruined the Steel Mills, PIA and the power sector by making political appointments were now lambasting the government for making workers jobless.
“We will not be bothered by strikes and protests. These institutions can no longer be run in the same manner as before,” Mr Khan reaffirmed.
The premier said the government had already paid Rs34bn as salaries to nearly 9,000 employees of the “closed” Steel Mills.
He said the PSM had earned a profit of Rs8bn during the rule of retired Gen Pervez Musharraf in 2008, but the next government had left it under a crushing debt burden.
“Either we must get ready for reforms or for facing a dire situation in the days ahead,” he said.
“Mafias” were running these institutions and if the government succeeded in carrying out reforms, the nation would see better days, Mr Khan said on a cheerful note.
“It is the worst of times, but if we want to change it into the best of times we have to plan for the future,” the premier said, taking inspiration from the 19th century English novelist Charles Dickens.
Mr Khan said a number of mafias and cartels were operating in the country. When the government started an inquiry into the sugar scam, “we came to know that a handful of people” were making windfall profits.
“Despite receiving a subsidy of Rs29bn, the entire sugar industry pays only Rs9bn in taxes,” the prime minister said.
The consumer was being forced to purchase costly sugar because of “the regulators’ collusion with sugar cartels”.
“These big monopolies, cartels, mafias would never have been able to run without government patronage,” he said. Mr Khan accused former president Asif Zardari and former prime minister Nawaz Sharif of operating sugar mills only to “whiten their black money”.
“It is my mission to bring all these cartels and mafias under the law.”
The premier revealed that “some elements”, whom he did not name, had asked him to suppress the report about PIA pilots possessing dubious licences. But doing so would endanger lives and “the blood will be on my hands,” he added.
Turning to the political scene, the prime minister said the night before passage of the budget, tongues were wagging about the future of his government.
“Had you watched TV that night, you would have thought it was our last day.”
Referring to his reported speech at a dinner he had hosted for his party’s legislators and allies ahead of the budget passage, Mr Khan clarified he had never stated that “Meri Kursi Mazboot Hai” (my chair is strong).
“I live in my house and bear all my expenses, except for security. I do so because I don’t want to have worries after leaving the office and so that I do not have to compromise on ideology and principles,” he said. “No one can topple our government as long as we stand on our principles.”
He advised young parliamentarians to not be scared of “leaving the chair,” saying no one remains in power for ever.
Mr Khan took a dig at Khawaja Asif, parliamentary leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, calling him “the acting opposition leader”.
He wondered how a man serving as defence and foreign minister could receive a salary of Rs1.5 million from the UAE.
“Who pays your Rs1.5m salary. You must have given (them) something in return,” he said, without elaborating.
Imran Khan said the opposition seemed to be in a hurry as it knew that “we are getting something from Dubai”.
“They call a convicted person their leader,” he said in an allusion to former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s conviction in the Panama case.
“You did not let me deliver a speech on the first day and now you claim that the government has failed,” the prime minister said, recalling the opposition’s noisy protest in the National Assembly soon after his election as leader of the house in 2018.
The prime minister was of the view that Pervez Musharraf’s government “wasn’t as bad”, but said his decision to issue the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) was wrong.
“The present opposition wants me to enter into a similar deal with them.”
Mr Khan ridiculed the PML-N for “changing faces” in keeping with changing times. “Sometimes it presents itself as a religious party and sometimes as a liberal party. They even claim to be Jihadis when it suits them.”
The prime minister said they always “try to alarm the West by saying that Pakistan will be taken over by extremists if they lose power”.
“They are liberals but only in one way: they are liberally corrupt,” Imran Khan observed.
The prime minister began his speech by paying tributes to doctors, nurses and paramedics who were looking after coronavirus patients. Due to the pandemic, he said, the entire service sector was affected. The people of northern areas relied on summer tourism for their livelihood, but now they were struggling to make both ends meet. He said the government was making plans to help such people ride out these hard times.
He praised his finance team for presenting what he called a difficult budget.
Hours after Mr Khan’s address, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhmmad Khan through a Tweet warned that the whole system would be wrapped up if minus one formula was implemented.
“Those talking about minus Imran Khan, listen if Imran is minus, democracy will also minus (from the country),” the minister tweeted.
Later, during a TV talk show, the minister said the PM had given the statement in reaction to the opposition leaders’ claim that minus one formula was being implemented. He challenged the opposition to bring a “no confidence” motion against the prime minister.
Earlier, the PM held separate meetings with ruling PTI MNAs, including more than 20 women MNAs, and assured them the government would complete its five-year term.
Syed Irfan Raza also contributed to this report
Published in Dawn, July 1st, 2020