ISLAMABAD NOTES

As opposition voices concern day in and day out about the lack of interest being shown by the premier in parliamentary proceedings, some ruling party insiders believe re-invigorating debate and decision making inside the parliament may actually lessen their political woes and soften their fiery foes. Of late, Premier Sharif’s much-touted foreign tours and official business in parts of the country kept him away from the November proceedings of both the house of the Parliament, most of the time. Fair enough, but his top aides may find no excuse this time, if leader of the house in the National Assembly repeats the past performance, under one pretext or the other.

Much more is expected of Sharif as a powerful chief executive of the country, unlike rubber stamp premiers like Zafarullah Jamali, Shaukat Aziz of Musharraf era and then the easy-going orator like Yousaf Raza Gillani who was really fond of enjoying presence in the Parliament as a favourite pastime.

The country having gone through back-to-back eventful days during the last two months, many believe, Sharif has to be more responsive and answerable to the Parliament. He has already conceded much political space to PTI’s firebrand-cum-compulsory agitator, Imran Khan. Opposition Leader Syed Khurshid Shah in the Lower House seems safely tucked in a hassle-free opposition mode at a time when more experienced opposition leader of the party in Upper House Eitzaz Ahsan wasted the last session in mock proceedings and other egoistic adventures in a futile bid to nail down the interior minister. On his part, Khurshid Shah may seem very active through media statements and personal rapport with treasury benches, but he is strictly adhering to policy guidelines of his de-facto party chief Asif Ali Zardari who doesn’t want to be in attacking opposition mode against the PML-N dispensation for his own reasons.

Having suffered the worst election defeat after completing ‘successful’ five years tenure in power, the PPP under Zardari cannot afford to play a bold political card at the moment as his provincial government is badly embroiled in Karachi’s target killings, and is eyeball to eyeball with Altaf Bhai’s MQM in major urban centres of Sindh. Remember the visibly tense Sharif as he took over as am premier this June. Having installed his own man at the Presidency and chosen a general of his own liking to lead the army, he cannot afford to shy away or observe silence over domestic and foreign policy issues any more. All through the opposition years 2008-mid 13, we kept on hearing his “democratic sermons” through media talks, seminars, or gatherings of political leaders when he was comfortable in opposition mode. But a smooth sailing for his younger brother-led Punjab government was always at the back of his mind, too. Now everyone knows, a shy public orator of the yesteryears, having gone through thick and thin of politics, exiles, martial laws, long marchers etc has come of age. Sharif needs to come clear and straight, to brief the Parliament on the impact of his important visits to the United States, the United Nations and the recent one to Afghanistan as the killer drones fly into Pakistani territory unchallenged. Then he has to share his economic revival plan with the parliament.

The premier and his team may have to brace with patience the upcoming sitting of the Parliament, especially the National Assembly that may bring a lot of political fireworks from the opposition benches on key economic, foreign policy and domestic law and order issues. PTI will throw a formidable challenge for sure, even when PPP may adopt the friendly opposition mode. NATO supply blockade by a political party under the nose of its political government cannot continue unchecked or unresolved. Since his taking the reins of power in this June, it’s been not an easy ride for Nawaz Sharif. Ask any ruling party insider, he will mince no words in admitting that unpopular economic decisions of their government don’t leave much time and space to experiment with patience of the masses. Year 2014 is going to be a make or break situation for the Sharif-led dispensation as far as public perception is concerned, though it may linger on to complete its constitutional term like PPP did. Everyone knows that a bit improved economic indicators and resultant relief in inflation could bring a sigh of relief for the incumbent dispensation. As they put in efforts to lay foundations of the energy projects one after the other across Pakistan and announce an incentive package for business and industry, the buzzword taking circles in the PML-N echelons of powers is: When will the positive turn come? Unchecked food inflation, electricity and fuel prices touching a mark literally unbearable for the masses to sustain, we hear that government has been able to save Rs 40 billion by cutting down its expenditures during the last quarter. For the moment all eyes are fixed on Finance Minister Ishaq Dar. His distracters like Shaukat Aziz may dismiss him as a glorified chartered accountant lacking economic vision, especially practical handling of the money market. In 1998, many economists claim, Dar played havoc with Pakistani economy as he froze the foreign currency accounts fearing flight of dollars as the country came under international sanctions following the atomic tests. As the sanctions eased next year, Dar didn’t have time to show his economic maestro in the wake of late 1999 Musharraf coup.

As the argument goes, Shaukat had the US dollar under tight control during his time, not more than Rs 63 per dollar. The economic indicators were encouraging and inflation was under control. But one must not forget the 2006 stock market crash; many blame squarely Shaukat and ilk for it. We kept on hearing throughout Shaukat Aziz’s tenure as finance minister and then prime minister, the number of refrigerators, televisions, mobiles and such home appliances were added to the Pakistani market to have economic prosperity even for poor to lower middle class segments. This was exactly the same time we saw the then military strongman, General Musharraf, painstakingly busy all the time in chairing meetings to come up with new water reservoirs and hydel power generation projects. But as the Pakistani nation went through the worst power outages in 2010-13, one could only regret that practically not a single dam or major power project could be added from 1999-2012, to meet the growing power needs of the country.

Finance Minister Ishaq Dar is a different mold, considered linchpin of the Sharif-led PML-N dispensation – an all purpose number three, even if Interior Minister Ch Nisar doesn’t agree. Dar is a former employee of the industry once run and owned by late Mian Sharif, Premier Sharif’s father. A brainy employee turned into a confidant who later made his own riches independently through right connections in the Gulf kingdoms. The early days of Musharraf coup were very hard and harsh for this financial wizard Kashmiri from Lahore as he had to undergo physical and mental torture, but he didn’t turn into an approver against Sharifs. On his release he went to Dubai and later became an adviser to that government. Rest was a steady path till Sharifs returned from exile in December 2007. Up till then, Dar was not only top confidant all-purpose deputy of the elder Sharif but he had also carved ties with his family and soon became father-in-law of the younger daughter of the elder Sharif. With Sharif all ears to every advice of his brainy finance minister, the big question for the moment is if Ishaq Dar and his team can deliver.