Yesterdays presentation of the federal budget for the year 2011-12 started with the realisation in the press gallery that the speech would be presented almost an hour later than planned most likely because several sections of it were undergoing a hurried rewrite in the chambers of the PM. This was supported by the fact that, in contrast to previous practice, not one copy of the speech was available in the press gallery for journalists. When asked we were told that copies would be available an hour later and not before. An army of photocopying machines somewhere had probably just received a rush order. The Prime Minister and Finance Minister arrived at roughly the same time as the Opposition leader, all three a few minutes after the speaker had called the house to order. As Finance Minister Hafeez Sheikh stepped up to the podium and before he had even turned the first page of his speech, close to 70 members of Opposition benches moved to the front of the hall in a steady stream, some of them shaking hands with the Prime Minister on the way. They took their places opposite the FMs podium and raised chants of Corrupt government is unacceptable (Corrupt hakoomat namanzoor), Shame, shame, Stop looting the poor (Ghareeb ko lootna band karo), Robber (Daakoo), IMF budget, unacceptable (IMF ka budget namanzoor) and other slogans, designed to drown out the FMs voice and alleviate themselves from the discredit of 'friendly opposition. The wall of sound around the FM made the opening remarks and subsequently the rest of his entire speech impossible to hear or understand. A few seconds into the speech, perhaps expecting a signal to halt until the noise subsided, the FM looked over at the PM and received instead a resolute nod signalling him to keep going, no matter what. After that, Hafeez Sheikh appeared to be having an out of body experience. He soldiered on as though he was delivering a speech in the calm of a spa instead of a raucous gathering of bangle flinging, dakoo-chanting, decidedly un-friendly opposition. The picture of unflappable calm, the PM ordered headphones for the members and himself plugged them firmly into his ears. Some members of government benches followed suit, while others looked bored and preferred to watch the show put on by the Opposition, instead of studying the mountain of paperwork put in front of them or head the transcript of the FMs speech on the earphones provided. In front of the protesters, the PM looked as serene as though he were watching a show at the Lido instead of shouts of unstinting criticism essentially levelled at him and his government. Members of the gallery had understood that we would all be tuning in to television channels to hear the contents of the speech at our respective offices once the session ended. The FMs accented voice was at times audible for the space of a few words over the cacophony of voices from the opposition protest concerto. Lined up in front of the FM (and oddly, with little or no taunting directed at the PM himself except for Marvi Memon: read on), the opposition chorus yelled themselves hoarse, with Tehmina Daultana providing first aid in the form of the popular lozenges Strepsils fished out from the depths of her purse. Marvi Memon, who was the only member of Parliament who amidst all the chanting and desk banging, bothered to undo the huge bundle of papers containing details of the budget proposals provided for the benefit of each member. While the protests got louder and louder, she could be seen sitting on her seat in the middle of the opposition benches, furiously leafing through the pink pages like the class nerd. Then, shaking her head and in great anger, she rose from her seat, marched up to the PM and ripping out two pages of the budget details booklet (these two pages were the ones containing the breakdown of the Presidents Secretariat budget and the Prime Ministers Secretariat budget both of which have risen since last year), proceeded to rip them to shreds and flung them into the PMs lap. When government MNAs rose from their seats to react, the PM while calmly brushing the pink confetti off himself, instructed them to sit back and adopt a strictly non-confrontational approach. Throughout the speech, the same instructions were repeatedly given by the PM to his benches, while smiling and looking unabashedly like he was enjoying every second of the madness of the session. PTV cameramen covering the session earned their keep, desperately trying to find viable angles, while protestors tightened ranks around the FMs podium. At one point it seemed as though the cameramen had no choice but to zoom in on the FMs nostrils, to keep only him in the shot and cut out protestors. Ahsan Iqbal, apparently mistaking the FMs slim form for malnutrition, marched up to him with a Sasti roti. The house was nearly treated to a wrestling dangal between Tehmina Daultana and Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan, when both political heavyweights came face to face after Tehmina flung a bangle at the FMs head. Dr Firdous lunged out of her seat to bat away the bangle, which managed to bounce off the microphone onto the podium before descending to the floor. Once again, one must give credit to the FMs calm and imperturbable demeanour, whether confronted by rotis or bangles or daakoo chants. However, this did not mean that he had enough time to read out his speech in entirety. Flicking through three pages in time to one sentence on the mic, the FM rushed through the wad of papers in front of him at lightning speed, leaving no doubt in anyones mind that he just wanted to get the whole experience over with. Ending his speech, he looked quite delighted, as though he had faced down a challenge to his utmost satisfaction; in fact his last lines were a verse, which delivered a taunting retort right back at the screaming opposition: Roman Script: Tundi-e baad-e-mukhalif se na ghabra ay uqaab Ye tou chalti hai tujhay ooncha urranay ke liye Translation: Dont fear the intensity of headwind, O Eagle It only blows to help you fly even higher Also sighted at the session was the ostracized ex-Haj Minister Hamid Saeed Kazmi looking like an awkward teenager after a first reading of how to make friends and influence people who was weaving in and out of one group after the other, only to be deftly and relentlessly ignored, by a casual turn in the other direction, a flick of the eyes up to the press gallery, anything to avoiding locking gazes with the disgraced ex-minister. We hear the PM no longer even acknowledges his presence, let alone shake hands with him. Shah Mahmood Qureshi took his seat on the government benches, first in the eighth row, then exiled to the furthest left of the hall; so positioned to stay out of the view of the camera, putting up a good act of a man bruised but not defeated, although the pundits say otherwise. Sherry Rehman was in attendance wearing a sunny yellow colour and countenance, which was only marred when she scowled at the lady who succeeded her in the information ministry as she passed by. All in all, one can say with complete confidence that save perhaps 5% of the members of the National Assembly, and this is an optimistic estimate, none of them actually knew what the contents of the budget speech were. The ones who did probably received a hurried coaching to equip them to deal with late night talk shows where they would inevitably be dragged over hot coals. Half the opposition protested, the other half relaxed on their seats, chewing their nails and at times even retreating to the members lounge for a quick cup of tea in the hour long session. Half the government members took their cues from the PM and banged desks whenever signalled to and pretended to listen to the FMs speech with great interest and encouragement, while the other half yawned and fought sleep while looking at the opposition protest in mild amusement, tapping their feet in time to the slogans. Whether any of them know whether the health budget has gone up or down, how much the war on terror has cost us, whether our education budget will be enough for the tidal wave of youth that needs itI can quite confidently say that none of our elected representatives have a clue nor were they interested. Yesterdays performance, was just that: a performance from both sides no less. Now that its over, the opposition can congratulate themselves for having drowned out the FM and the PM can congratulate himself for looking like his side took the higher road by not chucking accessories and food items at the opposition protestors. The real debate on the budget will emerge after todays post-budget conference and the impending session of the National Assembly, in which one hopes that the members of Parliament will keep themselves awake and interested for long enough to ask some intelligent questions instead of behaving like a bunch of zoo animals flinging refuse at each other and being pleased about it.