ISLAMABAD: In an unprecedented move, treasury members on Monday stopped opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif from opening up a general debate on federal budget, declaring that government would not allow him and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari to speak in the National Assembly without first having a ‘written guarantee’ that they would hear speeches of Prime Minister Imran Khan and ministers silently.
The treasury members, including Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and some other ministers, stood up and started thumping the desks and raising slogans of ‘Chor, Chor’ (thief, thief) as soon as Speaker Asad Qaiser gave floor to the opposition leader to open up the general debate on the federal budget 2021-22 that was presented by Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin on June 11 amid a similar noisy protest by the opposition.
While Mr Qureshi asked the speaker to give him the floor, the latter repeatedly told the treasury members to listen to the opposition leader who continued his speech for a few minutes noises from the treasury members. When Mr Qureshi headed towards Mr Sharif’s chair the Speaker suspended the proceedings for 20 minutes asking both lawmakers as well as the chief whips of the parties to sit together and work out the strategy for the budget session.
Interestingly, the strategy for the budget session had already been finalised in the meeting of the House Business Advisory Committee (HBAC) comprising representatives of all the parties. It was agreed that the present session would continue till June 30 and the budget would be presented for approval on June 29. It was also decided that the debate would continue for 40 hours and the finance minister would wind it up on June 24.
Deadlock prevails as both sides seek guarantees to maintain silence
The break, however, lasted three hours and after a deadlock between the government and the opposition in the talks, the speaker came to the House only to announce adjournment of further proceedings till 3pm on Tuesday.
During the talks held at the Speaker’s office, sources said both sides accused each other of demonstrating non-serious and undemocratic attitude and undermining the parliament. The sources said the two sides sought the guarantee that they would not disrupt the speeches of leaders from the other side, but the negotiations hit the deadlock as both sides refused to give any such guarantee.
While condemning the treasury members’ act of disrupting the opposition leader’s speech, the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz termed it ‘shameful’ and “pre-planned”. The party also decided that it would no more hold talks with the speaker in the presence of the treasury members.
“We have decided that if we will talk to the speaker then we will do it separately. The government people can meet the speaker separately,” said PML-N legislator Rana Tanvir with party’s secretary general Ahsan Iqbal and former speaker Ayaz Sadiq at a news conference after the failure of talks.
Mr Iqbal called it another “black day” in the history of the parliament, saying that it had never happened in the past that the treasury members had blocked the opposition leader’s budget speech. He said the opposition lawmakers came to know during the meeting in the Speaker’s Office that the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) members had done all this on Prime Minister Imran Khan’s directive. He said Mr Qaiser’s behaviour also showed all had been done on the prime minister’s directive. The Speaker had met the premier earlier in the day before the start of the assembly session.
Mr Iqbal alleged that FM Qureshi was leading the treasury members’ protest, as he wanted to ‘increase his marks’ before Mr Khan. “The ruckus created by the treasury benches under the foreign minister’s leadership is shameful,” he said.
“I want to ask the government as to whom it has served by damaging the country’s image and democracy through this shameful act,” Mr Iqbal remarked.
‘Pack of lies’
The PML-N leader said the treasury members’ action had proved that the “budget was a pack of lies” and the government had no courage to listen to the facts. He alleged that Mr Khan wanted to turn the country into a “fascist state” and like former German dictator Adolf Hitler, wanted to impose a “one-party system” in the country. But Mr Khan must know that he could not control the Parliament House like his “palatial Banigala residence”, he said. Even no military dictator had made the parliament hostage like he had done, Mr Iqbal said.
He quoted the ministers as telling others in the meeting that they could allow the NA proceedings to continue only if the prime minister would permit them. “Is the Speaker also a puppet?” he asked.
PML-N information secretary Marriyum Aurangzeb, when contacted, said whatever happened in the assembly was all “pre-planned” with the Speaker also having a role in the game. She was of the opinion that the chair should not have suspended the proceedings when the opposition leader was willing to complete his speech despite noise from the treasury benches.
“The Speaker in connivance with a senior cabinet member suspended the proceedings,” she said.
Confirming that the treasury members had demanded that the opposition give a guarantee that they would not disrupt PM Khan’s speech, Ms Aurangzeb said they could not give any such guarantee.
Federal Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry, when contacted, categorically stated that if the opposition would not allow the prime minister and the ministers to speak, they would simply not allow them to do so as well.
Replying to a question, the minister said it would be opposition loss if the parliament would become dysfunctional. “The parliament is the biggest and only forum available to the opposition to talk and raise issues. If they (the opposition) will make the parliament dysfunctional, where will it go,” Mr Chaudhry observed.
“The opposition must review its conduct. We are ready to run the House, but they (the opposition leaders) will have to promise that they will let the prime minister speak in the House. If they will let us speak, we will let them speak,” he claimed.
The minister said they did not believe in “verbal guarantees” from the opposition, as twice it had happened in the past that the opposition leader left the house after delivering the speech. He said: “We want a solid guarantee this time. They (the opposition) will have to give us a written guarantee that they will listen to the prime minister and other ministers (in the assembly).”
“If Imran Khan can’t speak, then Shehbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto, too, cannot speak. If I can’t deliver speech, then Ahsan Iqbal also cannot do so,” the minister added.
Syed Naveed Qamar of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), who also attended the meeting, said federal ministers Asad Umar and Shireen Mazari had sought time from the Speaker and the opposition, saying that they would consult the prime minister over the issue of guarantee. He said when they returned, they said they could not give any guarantee.
Mr Qamar said it seemed the government members and the prime minister were not ready to forget the day when the opposition had created a rumpus during the first speech of Imran Khan after his election as the prime minister as the ministers kept on mentioning it during the meeting.
The opposition leader during the session managed to speak for only four minutes in stating that instead of providing relief to the masses, the budget had created more hardships for the poor. “It is simple. If the pockets of the people are empty, it means the (budgetary) figures are fake,” he said while ignoring the treasury members’ protest.
Published in Dawn, June 15th, 2021