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LAHORE, June 30: Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf debuted as the new chief government defender before the Lahore media corps on Saturday, pressed into minding many posts simultaneously — the government’s relationship with the judiciary and the opposition parties, its inability to overcome the energy crisis, terrorism, and last but not the least, he promptly repulsed the advance when a questioner remarked the government was wasting the army in some ‘bay-tukay’ (unwanted) works.

“I am sure you don’t mean it that way. The army is never involved in any bay-tuka work. (It is not) unless when it takes power from the elected governments,” the prime minister said on the second day of his first official visit to Lahore. The venue was the Governor’s House. It is so to speak, the last bastion where all the PPP’s politics has remained concentrated over the last many years. Freshly done tri-colours now hung around, accompanied not by evidence of a resolve to reinvent but out of a sheer necessity that has entailed the replacement of the name Yousuf Raza Gilani with Raja Pervez Ashraf.

But be it the last piece of land bearing the PPP hallmark in Lahore, the party was absent from the discussion since the session was more about going down in a court than stumbling in an election. And while other martyrs did make an appearance, not once was the name Gilani mentioned during the entire meeting. “Predecessor” was the preferred term as Raja Pervez appeared keen on re-establishing the truth about the supremacy of the party over individuals the party may choose as the prime minister from time to time. Was it proof of the weakness of the party, or a sign of its strength as an institution that, unlike tradition here, did not split under extreme pressure? Sign of a commitment that a whole batch of ‘known unknown’ soldiers was ready to fall for a cause? The readers are free to have their pick.

Raja Pervez was all for standing by “our army” just as all parties were ready to stand by “our judiciary”. Pursuing the same logic the prime minister next pleaded for similar backing to the “mother of all institutions”: the parliament. Earlier during the meeting, he had avoided a mention of the armed forces whereas he was repeatedly asked to come up with an answer to Balochistan’s woes and also when one participant had thought it fit to involve the army in resolving the long-running feud in Karachi. He said law and order was a provincial subject and a procedure was laid down in the Constitution for seeking military help if and when it was thought necessary.

Raja Pervez continued from where his predecessor had left off – receiving the all too familiar but largely silent reinforcement for his views from Information Minister Qamaruzzaman Kaira, who persisted in his customary role just one chair away from the prime minister. The prime minister’s emphasis was on democracy, the supremacy of parliament and on devolution, words not without relevance to the people of Pakistan, but words which were inevitably confronted, as they are at all forums today, with the loud refrain about energy shortage and government’s other troubles.

`MISLED BY BUREAUCRACY’: Prime ministerial remarks about the increase in funding to provinces were accepted with a polite nod, but energy crisis and his presence in office beyond a July 12 Supreme Court deadline truly dominated the discussion. Raja Pervez ruefully recalled how, after taking charge of the all-important power ministry, he had been misled by a bureaucratic plan that said loadshedding could be ended in a few months time.

He said his announcement after he took charge of power ministry in March 2008 was a mistake for which he had been taken to task by the media. Chastened and having risen to the office of the prime minister since then, he now wanted changes without any boastful declarations and potentially embarrassing deadlines. “The people will feel the changes” vis-a-vis loadshedding, he said.

Will he be here long enough to see his ideas through, considering the Supreme Court has given him until July 12 to decide on writing to Swiss authorities for reopening of corruption cases against President Asif Zardari? Pervez Ashraf was pestered with various formulations of the question and he ultimately found refuge in a participating editor’s grave tone that warned against dangers of instability. “Stability is essential,” was the prime minister’s standard answer as the group around him took turns in stating the obvious about the lack of energy, law and order and political stability which then spawned severe economic challenges.

The prime minister spoke of these being times when election fervour was setting in. He said he expected the PML-N to positively answer his call for a consensus chief election commissioner, and that he had the greatest of respect for the PML-N leadership and the mandate they had got in Punjab.

A self-confessed middle class man and a political activist who has been through the rigmarole, he was, visibly, most comfortable when discussing how politics was essentially a process to find solutions. There is no final word in politics and hence, while he mildly argued for the government’s right to complete its term, he didn’t rule out an early election as a way out of difficulties.

Nor did he reject out of hand a suggestion about holding a parliamentary debate to ascertain presidential immunity, which is the basis of the long- drawn and uneasy engagement between the executive and the judiciary.