The Punjab assembly says all about Pakistan’s fate
IT IS A SCORCHING, mid- June Lahore afternoon. The sky is clear blue. An almost bleach-white sunshine pours down buildings, majestic and nondescript, silently falling on hot asphalt, covered with vehicles of all types and humans of all sensibilities, moving in an indifferent rush to destinations near and far. As I step out of the car at the white barricade covered with barbed wire and surrounded by security officials with their superhuman ability to look vigilant even on days that hit like a hammer on a twisted nail, the beige, colonnaded building behind a large, no-nonsense gate appears as if in a dignified repose of an elderly relative in a faded, old family album. Atop the salmon roof is the flag of Pakistan, green and white, crescent-ed and star-ed, barely moving, this windless summer day.
And as I walk towards the few steps that reach into the space before the main entrance door, I think about the very important things that are meant to be done in that building, but not much happens on any given day.
This, my dear world, is the Punjab assembly building that serves as the parliament for the largest set of elected representatives of the largest province, in terms of population, of Pakistan. If my increasingly weak memory serves me right, I’ve been to the Punjab assembly only four or fives times during the terms of different governments, and there is one thing that I must say before I say many other things: Nothing changes.
Nothing changes in this building even when the faces change—on the Speaker’s seat, on the chief minister’s special place on the assembly floor, members of provincial assembly (MPAs), ministers seated in the front rows of the semi-circular room and the noisy opposition on the left side—provided you are looking at the room, or hall, or whatever it is these important places are called, from the Speaker’s angle. There is so much that is wrong with the picture that my woefully observant eyes take in, my overactive mind shaking its greying head, my last bits of optimism leaving me faster than politicians changing loyalties in a high-stakes horse-trading midnight session before the oath- taking ceremony of a new assembly.
It is quite simple. Each time I’ve been in the Punjab assembly building, only one question moves in slo-mo in my head in a loop: are these the people that we have voted in and whose decisions have the power to change the lives of millions of people? The answer, my friend, is not blowing in the wind. It does not exist. For it to exist, I’d have to confront the awful reality of politics in my beloved homeland that wishes and votes and hopes and prays and tries and watches, but, as the wise say, nothing changes. The inevitability of that is enough to break the spirit of anyone who believes in the inevitability of change, but then life is what it is: tough as hell, and not remotely what you twist and expect it to be.
Back to my two hours in the building that smiles, resignedly, like the sweet old relative in the old, musty family album, the first thing that happened as I walked, accompanied by a gracious staff member of a minister friend of mine, was two gracious men with a camera and microphone stopping me for a comment. Despite my insistence that I was neither a politician nor a journalist whose opinion would be of much interest to anyone who looks for juicy comments from all they meet on and before the steps that lead into the main door that they think are ‘important’, they insisted. As I began to say this and that of political sagacity of no import, a black car stopped a few yards from where I was standing.
In the premises of the building where only the cars of the very few, very VIP, are allowed, I thought it was the chief minister of Punjab, Usman Buzdar. Within seconds, the person who disembarked from the car was in a thick embrace of security personnel, and men, and maybe some women, carrying long-wired microphones and cameras. On being told it was Hamza Sharif, a Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) vice-president, nephew of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (currently in jail) and the son of three-time Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif (some naysayers say he should be in jail too. Me? I like the man with his fondness for safari suits, red sneakers and building roads, underpasses and flyovers), I told the TV folks talking to me to go to the place where the real action was: the car from which Hamza emerged.
Mobbed and treated like a Shah Rukh Khan entering the Indira Gandhi International Airport after a blockbuster movie, Hamza, escorted by many police and other officials, had arrived from his place of custody. Did I forget to mention he was arrested a few days ago, June 11th, to be precise?
The PTI of Imran Khan—yes, the new prime minister who came on the promise of tabdeeli and will not rest until everything bad becomes good or at least gets on the way of being reformed—is facing what all parties in power in Pakistan expect to face: opposition for the sake of opposition
Arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) after the rejection of his bail petition, currently on a 15-day physical remand, Hamza is facing accusations of ‘money laundering/assets beyond means and the Ramzan Sugar Mills case’. Oh, and that reminds me of someone not from Punjab, but also a political VVIP, who was arrested the same day by the same NAB, but in a different capital.
Asif Ali Zardari—the former president of Pakistan, co-chairperson of one of the oldest and most prominent parties of Pakistan, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), and the widower of the one of the most famous Pakistani politicians and two-time prime minister, the late Benazir Bhutto—on June 11th was taken into custody by the NAB after the rejection of his pre-arrest bail petition in Islamabad. The accusation he faces is on the case of ‘suspicious transactions worth Rs 4.4 billion, allegedly carried out through a fictitious bank account’.
To be a VVIP politician in a country that very recently was on the precipice of an economic disaster…
Back to the Punjab assembly, watching the almost packed crescent-shaped hall with MPAs on the treasury and opposition sides, I knew what was about to unfold. It was the annual provincial budget presentation session, and the unremarkable déjà vu-ness of the proceedings of the assembly didn’t even make me question my silly idea to be there. This was Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) first Punjab government’s second annual budget. The PTI of Imran Khan—yes, the new prime minister of Pakistan who came on the promise of tabdeeli (change) and will not rest until everything bad in Pakistan becomes good or at least gets on the way of being reformed—is facing what all parties in power in Pakistan expect to face: opposition for the sake of opposition.
As the Punjab Finance Minister Hashim Jawan Bakhat Makhdoom presented the budget, the response was as predictable as the ending of an Anurag Kashyap movie where almost all characters, notwithstanding their flaws or merits, have an unhappily-ever-after
What is different today is that those parties, individually or in alliance, that opposed one another in provincial or central assemblies, and have been engaged in political musical chairs for decades, two parties in a rotation of power, are no longer in power. What is different today is that the PTI is facing brickbats for a situation that they did not create. They inherited the mess Pakistan is in today, and perhaps will be for an unforeseen period of tough, painful time. What is different today is that the PPP, once ruling and resplendent, does not even have the status of a footnote in the Punjab assembly after being electorally routed last year in this part of Pakistan.
What is different today is that the party in power, the PTI, is not being given a chance to prove its worth and capability. What is different today is that unlike the PTI that protested every move of the PML-N and the PPP for being the tried and the tested and the failed entities that despite being in power for decades did much for personal financial growth while keeping Pakistan in the red, the PML-N is stomping like schoolyard bullies who kick smaller children and boo the good ones for trying to do the right thing.
That is not to say, even for a moment, that all PTI folks are good and decent and dedicated to changing the lives of millions who voted them into power.
BUT SOME ARE. And many of them are working, day and night, to bring into implementation policies that would change Punjab, and Pakistan, on the micro and macro levels. Education in state-run schools is in the process of a complete overhaul, and the dedication and single-minded focus of the Punjab education minister, Murad Raas, is one but a potent example of how much is achievable if one person has the motivation, the vision and a good team to work with, and formation of policies that are relevant and focused on the long-term good.
This is just one minister. There are others who know their goal is one: change Punjab for better. What they need, and what their right is, that they should be given a chance to work. And if they fail, there is a simple mechanism for ensuring their disappearance from the assembly: don’t vote for them in 2023.
As the Punjab Finance Minister Makhdoom Hashim Jawan Bakhat presented the budget for the financial year 2019-20, the response was as predictable as the ending of an Anurag Kashyap movie where almost all characters, notwithstanding their flaws or merits, have an unhappily-ever-after. With voices of the opposition trying to disrupt his speech, Minister Bakhat, calm, composed and coherent, announced the PTI government’s plans to open new hospitals and universities; initiation of the Punjab Ehsas Programme (welfare of the underprivileged); the Hamqadam Programme (for persons with special needs); the Sarparast Programme (for provision of financial support to widows and orphans, monthly stipends for divorced women); the Musawat Programme (for rights of the transgender community); the Nai Zindagi Programme (for victims of acid attacks); a five-year project for economic empowerment of women; the Kharaj-e-Shuhada Programme (for financial support of widows and orphans of victims of terrorist attacks); and opening of nine shelters for the homeless.
Women MPAs on reserved seats, a few independents and a few MPAs of other parties, the Punjab assembly of 2018 has the treasury and opposition benches almost equally balanced, thus making every assembly session a test of nerves and who- can-shout-the-loudest and who-can-get-work-done-despite-the- shouting. During the budget speech, the opposition, made up of mostly one party, the good old PML-N of noisy protests and unimaginative slogans, created a din that would make an assembly of screeching-mynas-meet-football-fans-high-on-nationalism ashamed of their low decibels and a wish to exhale once in a while. Uncreased copies of the unopened budget, torn into misshaped little squares, like unwanted letters of a scorned lover, flew in the air, slowly filling the floor of the hall with whiteness that did little to conceal the absurdity of chants that made little or no sense.
An allegation is merely an allegation unless proven otherwise. And that also goes for all allegations on the Asif Ali Zardaris of misappropriation or embezzlement of national treasury and accumulation of wealth beyond means
A robust opposition that keeps a government on its toes and demonstrates due vigilance to ensure correctness of steps taken for the well-being of the people and the country is the hallmark of a vibrant democracy. To oppose to have a better idea in place is doing your job well. Demanding modifications in a lazy piece of legislation is being a good opposition. Expectation of transparency in matters of public policy is the right of those on the other side of the aisle.
And then there is gratuitous opposition. It is opposition simply to make governing a country, a province, a Herculean task with hurdles placed like landmines every step of the way. To turn a budget session into a cacophony of nothing for reasons that do not have even a toe, leave alone a leg, to stand on is just bad politics, and a very, very bad thing for a developing country. The PTI government despite some missteps and hasty decisions and induction of inappropriate people in important positions is not responsible for the economic upheaval Pakistan is presently in the midst of. The PTI, along with power that it gained through vote, has been gifted a disastrous scenario.
And neither is the PTI, despite the relentless narrative of Imran Khan’s 22-year old war on corruption, responsible for creation of the NAB, appointment of the NAB chairperson and filing of cases against the Sharifs, and Zardari and his sister. If the protest, while Minister Bakhat presented, without a pause, the Punjab budget 2019-20 had been against the failed policies of the PTI, or inadequate attention to issues that mattered or that the Khan government opting for an IMF bailout in a do-or-die financial scenario was a step taken with happiness, and not to fight the apocalypse-like emptiness of the national treasury—a gift of the last 10 years of Zardari and Sharif governments’ policies—it would have been accepted as the rightful articulation of disapproval of an elected opposition. What I saw in that hall was an outpouring of rage. And frustration.
THAT ONE THING that most dynastic politicians of Pakistan have in common, more than the zeroes in their bank accounts, is the sense of entitlement. That power is their birthright. That ruling the country is their uncontested right. That their wealth made while in power is theirs, and not to be questioned. That their accumulation of wealth is beyond accountability. That anyone other than them in power is a usurper. That anyone who doesn’t have their family name is an illegitimate claimant to be the ruler of Pakistan.
That the cogency of their protestation of innocence is falling on deaf ears of those who have the audacity to plant a ‘puppet’ in power. That all allegations of their misdeeds are cogs of a Machiavellian agenda to make them politically irrelevant. That all legal cases against them are a personal agenda of revenge of a political outsider like Imran Khan. That all judicial inquiries against them are a witch-hunt of Salem. And that… how dare anyone even think of holding them culpable of any crime—alleged or real.
Disclaimer: An allegation is merely an allegation unless proven otherwise. And that also goes for all allegations on the Sharifs and the Zardaris of misappropriation or embezzlement of national treasury and accumulation of wealth beyond means.
In a day or two, I may attend another session of the budget presentation of the Punjab assembly. It would be to see the budget pass; will it, won’t it, who knows? What I know for sure is that like the unchangeability of smugness on the faces of most of the parliamentarians and the black Toyota Land Cruiser that is the trademark of being a self-important politician in Pakistan, the session to pass the budget that affects the lives of millions of people will be nothing more than a match of who shouts the loudest, who is more loyal than the king, who insults the rowdiest, who gives the most sensational one-liner to TV crews and who wastes more time of the parliament.
And when I leave the Punjab assembly, one scorching mid- June Lahore afternoon, cursing my choice of shoes and my Pollyanna-ism of glass being half full, I’d just have one recurring thought: Nothing changes…