Minister unfazed by noisy opposition protest in NA

ISLAMABAD: Taking advantage of the rare presence of Prime Minister Imran Khan, nearly three dozen opposition members who attended the National Assembly sitting as per understanding with the government on Friday lodged a noisy protest during the budget speech of federal Minister for Industries Hammad Azhar, and later staged a walkout without creating much difficulties for the treasury benches.

Holding placards inscribed with anti-government slogans, the opposition members belonging to the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) walked out of the assembly hall in the middle of the minister’s speech after raising slogans for nearly an hour.

Unlike the past, the opposition members mostly remained on their seats and did not march towards the treasury benches or besiege the minister. When a couple of opposition members once attempted to go towards the treasury benches, Speaker Asad Qaiser warned them and told them to go back to their seats which they did.

At one point, the visibly agitated speaker asked the opposition members not to raise “inappropriate slogans” which could bring disrespect to the parliament and the legislators.

The opposition members, however, successfully foiled the government’s strategy to black out their protest by state-run Pakistan Television (PTV) having exclusive rights to show live parliamentary proceedings by constantly sending video clips from inside the hall to the reporters which were telecast by most of the private news channels in a separate window with the minister delivering the speech.

PML-N’s parliamentary leader Khawaja Asif led his party in the absence of Opposition Leader Shahbaz Sharif and many other frontline leaders of his party who have been suffering from coronavirus whereas former prime minister Raja Pervez was seen spearheading his party members in the absence of party chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, who preferred not to attend the sitting despite being present in Islamabad, and the ailing former president Asif Zardari.

Besides Mr Sharif, the prominent opposition members who could not attend the sitting after getting tested positive for Covid-19 were former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, former NA speaker Ayaz Sadiq, ex-ministers Ahsan Iqbal and Marriyum Aurangzeb.

During the protest, the opposition members raised slogans like “Cheeni Chor, Aata Chor, Petrol Chor” (sugar thieves, flour thieves and petrol thieves), “No to Privatisation of Steel Mills” and “Dhandli-zada Hukoomat Namanzoor (rigged government unacceptable). Some opposition members were carrying placards inscribed with promises that had been made by the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) regarding provision of 10 million jobs and construction of five million houses.

Though the PML-N and the PPP protested in the assembly during the budget speech, the two parties had already provided a walkover to the PTI government during the ongoing budget session by agreeing that their members would not press for voting on cut motions and would not point out quorum till the passage of the budget by June 30.

In a meeting of the parliamentary leaders with the NA speaker last week, the opposition parties had also agreed that only a maximum of 86 members (one-fourth of the total 342-member house) — 46 from the treasury and 40 from the opposition — will be present in the house at one time to ensure that social distancing policy is followed amid Covid-19 pandemic.

The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl, the other smaller opposition party, however, had rejected the agreement and announced that all of its members would participate in the budget session.

Reaction over budget

The opposition parties in their immediate reaction to the second full-fledged federal budget presented by the present PTI government termed it “anti-public” and even “anti-Pakistan”.

In a statement, Opposition Leader and PML-N president Shahbaz Sharif called it “the most anti-public budget in the history of the country”, stating that this budget would lead to more inflation and unemployment.

Mr Sharif alleged that the government had tried hard to hide its incompetence by blaming the previous government and the new coronavirus. “Inflation, unemployment and degradation of businesses have broken all records under this government and this budget is a recipe for disaster, as it will further worsen the economic state of the country,” he said.

He said the Rs1.7 trillion billion tax deficit was the hallmark of this government’s performance. For the first time in 68 years, the country’s GDP was in negative territory after inheriting 5.8 GDP from the PML-N government, he added.

“This is the first government that has missed all targets of tax revenue, government expenditure, fiscal deficit and GDP,” he said, and added that hiding behind the coronavirus was not going to do any good.

On IMF pressure, it was absolutely brutal not to increase salaries and pensions, said the opposition leader. He regretted how the government froze CPEC in its tracks, ignored Balochistan and slashed the development budget drastically.

He also warned the people that they must get ready for a series of mini-budgets in coming months.

“The government blames coronavirus for the downturn fall whereas it was falling 25 per cent behind its target in February before coronavirus,” he added.

PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said his party “totally rejected” this budget, saying the budget had not given any importance to the crises caused by the coronavirus along with locust attacks and the looming threat of food security. The provinces had not been given any support in the budget for handling of Covid-19, he said.

In her response to the budget, PPP parliamentary leader in the Senate Sherry Rehman said this was not a national budget for a country facing a crisis, saying that “it is not only anti-people, but anti-Pakistan budget”.

“This is not even a national budget. It’s a rolling accounting exercise led by the IMF. In four months, they will be rolling the numbers again while firing people from jobs,” she warned.

Sadly, she said, like this government, it was a set of failures that Covid-19 had masked; Pakistan’s public finances were in free fall even before the virus outbreak in the country, Pakistan’s economy was struggling to stay afloat with high interest rates, massive devaluations, crony capital sweet subsidies and falling exports.

Revenue, which likes at the heart of every economy, never met their own targets, with one FBR head after another going through revolving doors. “The costs of maintaining such a government will be felt by many future generations of Pakistanis and the damage they are doing, or done before Covid-19 is incalculable,” she added.