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NA: never so late, never so together

January 31, 2013

Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf with the members of the National Assembly at a farewell group photo session at the Parliament House. — Photo by APP

ISLAMABAD: The National Assembly never met so late during nearly five years of its life as on Wednesday after its members attended another singular event when they got together outside the house for a memorial photograph with a convalesced Speaker Fehmida Mirza.

There was no immediate explanation about why the house met late by over two hours though most of its members were already around for its first such group photo, which was taken with Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan flanking the speaker in the seated front row of leading lawmakers and others standing behind them on rows of steps to the parliament house’s main entrance.

While lawmakers of all parties in the house were invited for the first group photo of the kind, the government-allied Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) was absent as all its members had gone to nearby Rawalpindi to listen to a telephonic address by party leader Altaf Hussain from London.

The time the event took place around 4pm — that too about an hour late — was also the scheduled time for the start of the seventh sitting of the assembly’s present session, which began on Jan 21. But that did not happen until 6.15pm.

The delay set off speculation about possible contacts behind the scenes between the government and opposition negotiators to find ways to resolve differences about the creation of a proposed new province in Punjab and forming caretaker administrations at the centre and in provinces to oversee the next elections.

Khursheed Ahmed Shah, the chief whip of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and religious affairs minister who heads a party committee tasked to contact opposition politicians, was at one time engaged in an apparently animated chat with some lawmakers of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N then seated in back row of their side of the house.

Delayed start of house meetings and absenteeism have been common despite repeated reprimands from the chair and complaints mostly from opposition benches, but never the present house has been late for so long as on Wednesday. Yet no one complained this time round, perhaps in deference to Speaker Mirza’s return to the house, after a long absence due to illness, to often sentimental remarks of welcome from almost every member who spoke or asked a question during the question when she chaired proceedings.

Some of them made welcoming remarks in regional tongues besides Urdu and English, such as “bhali karey Ah” in Sindhi by Muttahida Qaumi Movement’s Abdul Rashid Godil, “pakhair raghle” in Pashto by Bushra Gohar of the Awami National Party and “jee ayan nun” in Punjabi by Khurram Dastgir Khan of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-N.

“It is because of your prayers that I am back in this chair,” the speaker said while thanking all members for their sentiments and praising their achievements during what she called a “teething phase of democracy”.

Besides the question hour, the house conducted only a token business entered for the day, including introduction of two government bills, one of them to provide for the grant of degree-awarding status to Islamabad’s largest hospital complex, Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, and to upgrade it to a medical university named after executed former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

With its functions including instruction in teaching subjects and disciplines or branches of its choice at graduate and post-graduate levels and giving affiliation to all medical colleges and health institutions in both public and private sectors within the Islamabad Capital Territory, it will be called Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Medical University.

The other bill seeks to amend the Stock Exchanges (Corporatisation, Demutualisation and Integration) Act, 2012 to modify the timeline for its enforcement that had become ineffective because of the delayed enactment of the original draft.

Public Accounts Committee chairman Nadeem Afzal Gondal, of the PPP, used a speech on a point of order to criticise the Supreme Court registrar for refusing to appear before his committee to answer questions about pending audit reports related to the apex court and that the house debate the matter before running out its five-year tenure by March 16.

He said the house must decide which institutions could enjoy exemption from the PAC scrutiny of government appropriations.

“I think the registrar is more powerful than even the Supreme     Court,” Mr Gondal remarked referring to a court stay order against the registrar’s appearance, which he said had been issued on petitions even before any committee summons.

“A debate (on this) must be held on one day, and opposition leader (and former PAC chairman Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan) should take part in it,” he said.

But there was no immediate response from the chair, which had by then been taken by Deputy Speaker Faisal Karim Kundi.