Asad Qaisar, the Speaker of the national assembly, might look like a harmless simpleton, if you go by appearances only. But after keenly watching his conduct for around two years, I can safely describe him as “rustic cunning and wisdom personified.”

The election of July 2018 had been held in an extremely polarized environment. It denied a clear and comfortable majority to Imran Khan’s PTI. He had to cultivate disparate sort of allies to reach the prime minister’s office.

But two of our old and main political parties, the PML-N and the PPP, could still muster the strength of 140-plus members. Most of them had been returning to the national assembly since the 1990s. The majority of parliamentary reporters were thus justified to presume that being a first timer to a bitterly divided house, Asad Qaisar would miserably fail to smoothly run its proceedings. Asad Qaisar took no time to prove them wrong.

During the initial months of this assembly, he deliberately projected the feeling of friends-to-all about him. Doing so, he rather annoyed the PTI hawks; some of them even publicly accused him of being “too accommodating to the opposition.”

He also offended the ‘corruption-hating’ base of the PTI by regularly signing on the production orders, which ensured the presence of those members, nabbed by NAB, in house proceedings. Even the prime minister didn’t feel good about it. But Asad Qaisar stayed focused on the game of proving himself a ‘good cop’ to opposition MNAs.

To maintain the said posturing, he habitually vacates the presiding chair for Qasim Suri, the deputy speaker, whenever the PTI hawks decide to take on the opposition with bombastic speeches. Suri, another first timer from Quetta, loves to behave like a stern schoolmaster while presiding house proceedings. He also hates to act ‘neutral,’ and with the zeal of a recent convert always lets the PTI lynch the opposition, without caring for rules and propriety.

Since August 2018, Asad Qaisar had betrayed his reputation of being a soft cop, only once on June 30, 2020. That was the last day of the budget session. During its folding moments, he let Ali Zaidi resurrect the story of Uzair Baloch. This hyperactive minister from Karachi was granted ample time to drum the allegation that Asif Ali Zardari had also been “a known” protector and patron of the Don from Lyari.

The PPP desperately sought time to respond. After much reluctance, Asad Qaisar gave the mic to Abdul Qadir Patel. But the moment he took Imran Khan’s name, the Speaker switched off the mic. That forced the opposition to walk out of the house. It ensured calm in the house, which eventually facilitated the prime minister to deliver a harsh speech, lynching the ‘mafia-friendly’ opposition.

The house had to be adjourned Thursday. For another time, Qasim Suri had allowed Murad Saeed, a proud PPP-basher from the ministerial benches, to enlarge the narrative that “Zardari and his sister (Ms. Faryal Talpur)” had remained the most influential patrons of Uzair Baloch. The PPP felt extremely agitated about it. The Deputy Speaker again preferred to act deaf. They walked out in anger. But a PPP MNA later returned to point out the quorum.

We were certain to witness more bedlam, when the house assembled again on Friday morning. But Asad Qaisar had surely managed things before taking his seat. The Imran government had set no legislative agenda for ongoing session of the national assembly. That empowers the speaker to select subjects to be discussed during a sitting.

The Speaker fully employed his manipulative skills Friday by persuading members to “seriously discuss some highly pertinent issues related to agriculture sector.”Asad Qaisar needs no tutor for realizing that an overwhelming majority of national assembly members belong to “rural background.” To please the home constituencies, they desperately need to appear as if ceaselessly agitating about a plethora of issues, directly connected to farmers. Discussing the same, majority of members also forget the party divide. A select group of ruling party legislators was thus allowed to present and speak on a “calling attention notice” Friday.

The government had promised farmers that 5.35 rupees would be charged for a unit of electricity, consumed for running tube-wells carrying water to their lands. Member after member stood to remind Omar Ayub Khan that contrary to this commitment double the amount was being charged these days. The additional amount fell under the heads of Fuel Adjustment Charges (FAC)& General Sales Tax (GST).

The minister of energy, for a change, did not sound rude and arrogant while responding to this calling attention notice. With syrupy tongue, he rather expressed empathy with complaining legislators. But his polite words did not commit the easing of burden. He kept helplessly reminding that his department could not intervene in the matter. NEPRA, the regulatory body, fixes the rates for electricity. The Ministry of Finance decides the amounts, collected under the heads of FAC and GSA.

The NEPRA, Omar Ayub went on in a tone feigning sympathy, has still to define the category of farmers, deserving subsidy for the electricity they get for tube-wells.  If each farmer were charged 5.53 rupees per unit for the electricity consumed in this respect, the government would need to allocate at least 29 billion rupees for subsidy. The withdrawal of FACand GST could lead to the loss of a staggering amount of Rs. 62 Billion to revenue collectors.

Still, he kept assuring that farmer’s complaints would be considered sympathetically. Prime Minister Imran Khan, he revealed proudly, has categorically told the concerned departments that he “wants to help and facilitate growers by all means.” He has rather asked the relevant officials to present him a work plan to execute his will “in the next three weeks.”

The Speaker was yet not pleased. He kept wondering how to extract concessions for the agriculture sector, which was “crucial to our economy, especially in the times of an ongoing pandemic, that had already crippled our industry and trade.”

Being an experienced parliamentarian, only Rana Tanvir of the PML-N could dare to wake him up by politely reminding the Speaker that he had already constituted a committee to find solutions to all the fundamental issues connected to agricultural sector. He also happens to be the chairman of the said committee, having representation from all parties present in the house. Asad Qaisar should rather summon an SOS meeting of the said committee. Ministry of Finance and the rest of related departments can explain or defend their position during the proposed meeting.

In spite of pretending too concerned regarding the miseries of farmers, the Speaker remained shy of taking the suggested initiative. As anastute observer of power dynamics, he instinctively knew that Dr. Hafeez Sheikh savored absolute command and control, when it comes to issues connected to levies and taxes. And, this IMF-gifted technocrat fully knows the limits of a “sovereign parliament,” which we imagine to be having in Pakistan these days.

Syed Navid Qamar, another experienced parliamentarian from the PPP who had also served as Pakistan’s Finance minister at least twice since the early 1990s, was also apt to remind that all issues, connected to subsidies and relief on taxes etc., are finalized through the annual budget. And the Imran government had already got its proposals fixed and passed for the financial year of 2020-21, hardly ten days ago. The agricultural sector should rather not expect any concessions, when the budgetary process had recently been over and done with.

No doubt, Rana Tanvir and Syed Navid Qamar pointed out some obvious and hard facts. Yet, this government wants to keep the hope alive by creating illusions. Meanwhile Asad Qaisar it seems will continue to deliver for it like a master-illusionist.