Introducing an ‘unpopular budget’ next month

For being familiar with some background developments I strongly suspect that the lengthy and somewhat passionate speech, delivered by youthful Chairman of Pakistan Peoples’ Party in the National Assembly Thursday, primarily wanted to pacify and assuage the jittery hearts, fast growing within the ruling alliance. Pakistan Muslim League (N), the largest party of the unity or the coalition government, takes the lead in the given context.

 To fathom the confusion, one needs to appreciate the reality that even after being declared “disqualified to hold any public office” by the Supreme Court of Saqib Nisar and staying put in London since 2019, Nawaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister, remains the ultimate decider for Pakistan Muslim League. For many months, he had remained reluctant to approve the idea of removing Imran Khan through a vote of no confidence. Finally, he agreed but preferred that after reaching the Prime Minister’s office, Shehbaz Sharif must rush to hold earliest possible elections.

His younger brother and people considered too close to him trusted their managerial skills, however. They felt confident that by vigorously employing these skills, the new government could push Pakistan on the road to stability and generate some feel-good mood. But almost after a week of taking charge, the same crowd felt overwhelmed by the mess it had inherited. The unity or the coalition government quickly began to look clueless and not being able to take “tough decisions.”

The ultimate lender of the world, IMF, is simply not willing to keep doling out life-supporting funds to Pakistan, unless it withdraws massive subsidies furnished to keep the prices of petroleum products to bearable limits. Miftah Ismail, the new finance minister, had rushed to Washington after taking charge of his ministry. He had clearly been told that consumers in Pakistan must pay at least Rs30 more while purchasing a liter of petrol; for diesel double than the said amount was demanded.

Even a single party government, ruling with a comfortable majority, wouldn’t dare to enforce such a hike for fear of political backlash. The government led by Shehbaz Sharif felt doubly crippled for being a coalition of eleven big and small parties and groups. Far more important is the reality that the current government has a timeline of hardly14 more months.

Meanwhile, former prime minister Imran Khan continues to recharge his base. Addressing enraged crowds in city after city, he keeps building pressure for holding fresh elections. To press this demand he also intends to reach Islamabad with “millions” of protestors by the end of this month. After conceding to IMF demands, the government will certainly provide more fuel to his campaign.

Yet, the economic managers of Shehbaz Sharif were willing to take the risk. After taking the bitter pill, here and now, they expected to gradually stabilise things until the presentation of another budget in June 2023. But I have it from usually trustworthy sources that some “messengers” from powerful quarters of the state recently started suggesting to the prime minister and his team that after presenting the budget in next month, and getting it approved by the National Assembly, the government should consider preparing for early elections, sometime in October this year.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif reportedly felt baffled by the real or rumoured message. After sharing his anxiety with the leaders of coalition parties, he decided to rush to London to seek guidance from his elder brother, along with a team of his trusted aides.

Widely spread whispers in Islamabad claim that Nawaz Sharif firmly believes that the government should resist the idea of increasing the prices of petroleum, massively and in one go. If not able to prevent it, the government should rather try to find means of “staggering” the said increase, firmly demanded by the IMF.

He also feels that come what may, the government would be forced to introduce an “unpopular budget” in the next month. That is set to annoy, frustrate and alienate the so-called “vote bank’’, Nawaz Sharif has gradually been expanding and consolidating even after so many highs and lows of his political career since 1985. Instead of depleting the same with unpopular decisions, he wants his brother to call it quits and let a caretaker government takeover to announce the tough decisions and prepare for next elections. With delirious irritation, he keeps asking his party people: “why should we pay (political) price for the mess Imran Khan and his handlers had accumulated since 2018?”

With a spontaneous-looking interaction with media Wednesday in Karachi, Asif Ali Zardari visibly attempted to push back the idea of holding fresh elections, sometime in October this year. The day after, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari tried to reaffirm the desire of holding elections “only after reforming electoral laws and pulling Pakistan out of the crises,” fast and deeply developing on many fronts.

With the clear intent of checking the rising tide of Imran Khan, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari also took on him, viciously. He kept focused on projecting the former prime minister as a mere rabble-rouser, having no respect for the rules of the game of doing politics while appreciating constitutional restraints and parliamentary norms.

To prove his point, he mostly recalled what had been happening during the anxiety-laden seven days, which kept the nation on tenterhooks from April 3 to 7 of this year. He sounded justified to stress the point that removing a prime minister through the vote of no confidence was almost ‘normal’ in parliamentary democracies.

Our written Constitution clearly demands that a count must be held when such a move is appropriately tabled in the national assembly. But instead of facing the motion of no confidence with a brave face, Imran Khan employed all possible means; mostly foul, to elude the count on it. His diehard loyalist, Qasim Suri, eventually “rejected” the same as the deputy speaker of the national assembly. Imran Khan and his loyalists refused to go for the count, even after the Supreme Court firmly asked for it.

While Imran Khan continues to ignite public rage through holding public meetings and using all platforms of social media to promote his story of a “foreign (read American) conspiracy” against him, the dentist-turned-politician he had placed as the President of Pakistan- Arif Alvi - keeps throwing spanners to block smooth functioning of the new government.  His slimy winks and nods also inspired another PTI nominee, Umer Cheema, to use all possible tricks for delaying the establishment of an effective government in the most populous province of Pakistan, Punjab, as its Governor.

In a column, written during the mind-numbing days of early April, I had reported that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari had been receiving “ominous messages” which wanted him to forget the idea of removing Imran Khan through the vote of no confidence. Through his speech Thursday, the PPP Chairman, confirmed the said story by revealing that during the same days, a former federal minister clearly conveyed to him on behalf of Imran Khan that he would rather be getting ready to face martial law in Pakistan, if not willing to accept the idea of holding fresh elections, as suggested by the former prime minister.

After telling a comprehensive story, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari passionately promoted the idea of establishing a high-powered “parliamentary commission” to probe into “relentless efforts of subverting” or trampling the Constitution by Imran Khan and his loyalists.

One seriously wonders whether the mere formation of the commission, suggested by him, could really “check” the rabble rousing wave Imran Khan had surely succeeded to unleash after being removed from the Prime Minister’s Office. In the immediate context, I am also not sure whether Nawaz Sharif and his diehard loyalists would genuinely feel assuaged with his forceful speech of Thursday.

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