Achilles Heel

Achilles Heel
For three days running, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Asad Qaisar, has been compelled to adjourn parliament because the Treasury benches wont allow the leader of the Opposition, Shehbaz Sharif, to duly speak on the 2021 Budget. MNAs have behaved like Guttersnipes, hurling abuse, fisticuffs and budget documents across the aisles, constraining the Speaker to expel seven members from the House. But the Speaker’s bias in conducting these proceedings has obliged the Opposition to threaten a vote of no-confidence against him. Mr Qaisar sat back and allowed the situation to get ugly when it was palpably clear that the Treasury engineered the situation. He sanctioned four opposition members and only three from the government when many more abusive miscreants were easily identified amongst the Treasury benches. Some questions and consequences arise.

It is past routine for oppositions to try and drown out a finance minister’s budget speech. Such remains the acrimony between government and opposition that even Presidents have not been spared. Notions of bipartisan Speakers and Presidents were chucked out a long while ago because the holders of these offices did not abide by the spirit of the constitution that enthroned them. But opposition leaders were allowed their brief, fiery, thunder in the House as a consolation prize for having to endure oppressive and unaccountable governments. Alas, this practice was also buried in the grave of constitutional democracy these past few days when the opposition was out-opposed by the government in an unprecedented and aggressive manner. Should we be surprised that the Miltablishment that hoisted this hybrid civil-military system is quietly chuckling at its “democratic” dysfunctionality and secretly plotting its replacement by a more authoritarian Presidential system rather than a more democratic one?

More pertinently, we are not surprised by the unruly and undemocratic behaviour of the PTI in the National Assembly because it is at par with its oppressive attitude and practice towards the opposition outside parliament. Indeed, Imran Khan and his followers flaunt their objective to eliminate the PMLN and PPP from the body politic of the country and establish one-party rule. Therefore they have seized control of all the repressive organs of the state like the intelligence agencies, NAB, FIA, FBR, etc, and whipped them into persecuting and prosecuting anyone who’s anyone in the PPP and PMLN, so that no credible and capable opposition leader or party is left in the country to pose an electoral challenge to Imran Khan and PTI. Now they have carried the onslaught against the opposition to parliament where the government’s Achilles heel is the Budget, which is the opposition’s main target because it affects the lives of tens of millions of Pakistanis who are enraged by the PTI’s abysmal economic performance in the last three years that has fuelled crippling inflation, rising unemployment, significant income loss and poverty.

Opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif, in particular, arouses the unmitigated ire of Imran Khan for reason enough. He is a much better administrator than Imran. On his own, he is more acceptable to the Miltablishment than Imran because he is less unpredictable and more experienced in state craft. In fact, on various foreign policy issues, the PMLN under Shehbaz would probably deliver more governance and strategic satisfaction to the Militablishment than the PTI under Imran. Imran Khan knows that if the Miltablishment could stitch a deal with Nawaz Sharif that keeps him out of its hair for the next five years and frees up Shehbaz to benefit from the swelling PMLN voter base, it would throw him (Imran) under the bus without any qualms. That is why whenever there is talk of some such deal in the offing when Shehbaz Sharif is enlarged on bail or allowed to travel abroad, Imran is quick to slap new corruption cases against him and stop him from pursuing any such objective. In recent times, Shehbaz Sharif’s pro-Miltablishment narrative has acquired a threatening degree of legitimacy within the PMLN after the floundering of Nawaz Sharif’s anti-Miltablishment narrative following the pull out of the PPP and ANP from the PDM and abandonment of the strategy to topple the PTI government via a combination of long marches and mass resignations from national and provincial parliaments.

The ongoing breakdown in the National Assembly is also a consequence of conspiracy theories that threaten to bring down the PTI government. It is speculated that there is no better time to dislodge the government than via blocking the budget from being passed because that would effectively amount to a vote of no-confidence in the government and constitutionally require the election of a new leader of the House followed by a new government in Islamabad without recourse to new general elections. The numbers of anti PTI MNAs are such that if the Miltablishment winked at the JKT Forward Block, it would easily side with the opposition and stop the budget from being passed, knocking out the government. Conspiracy theorists point to some facts that give weight to their suspicions: Nawaz and Mariam are no longer criticizing the Miltablishment; Shehbaz and Bilawal have joined hands; the rump-PDM is not trying to strike out on its own; the courts have suddenly and inexplicably “softened” against Shehbaz; the opposition’s decision to launch a vote of no-confidence against the Speaker seemed ominous; and important postings and transfers are on the cards within the Miltablishment, possibly even this month, that may not augur well for Imran Khan.

Whether or not Imran Khan has incorrectly weighed the Miltablishment’s suspected plotting and planning or the PMLN’s secret moves, he is not taking any chances. Shehbaz Sharif is the lone ranger who could be embraced by the Miltablishment to dethrone him; the pro-rich budget is his Achilles heel on which no critical debate can be allowed to misguide the poor; and this moment in parliament is fraught with dangerous possibilities and consequences. He is, in short, hoping to provoke the opposition to boycott proceedings in protest so that he can bulldoze the budget without any opposition and stave off the threat of no-confidence.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.