Age has certainly taken care of my energy. But, I did leave my home Monday morning to witness the inaugural session of the National Assembly, with the same zeal that had motivated me way back in 1985.

After eight years of a merciless martial law, Gen Zia Up Haq had decided to restore parliament in that year by holding its election on non-party basis. Except the Islam-loving Jamaat-e-Islami and Pir Pagro-led Pakistan Muslim League of those days, the rest of political parties assembled in the Movement for Restoration of Democracy opted to stay out of his scheme.

The seasoned observers of our political history seriously believed that most of the voters would also prefer to stay home on polling day to preempt the plan of legitimizing Zia regime with the cover of an elected parliament.

Roaming in various cities as a struggling reporter, however, I discovered a spirited enthusiasm for the electoral process. That forced me to imagine that after returning to an elected house, most of its members would want to push their praetorian handlers to uncomfortable situations.

I had gone to the inaugural session of that assembly, primarily to test my presumptions. I felt glad to be proven right at the end of the day, and began penning a regular column on the proceedings of the national assembly.

Columns trying to catch and narrate interesting moments in the house while sitting in the press gallery have lost their charm in the age of moment-to-moment live coverage by 24/7 news channels. Stuff keeps simmering beyond things that meet the eyes, though, and the national assembly elected through multiple games of 2018 has the potential to spring a plethora of unimaginable surprises. The said potential made me leave home and wander through parliamentary lobbies Monday morning.

The capacity filled press gallery was glued to appearances, however. The big question remained as to how Imran Khan would take the presence of Asif Ali Zardari and Shehbaz Sharif in a house that he had promised to keep “clean” of the stuff he viciously kept calling as “looters and plunderers.”

He attempted to behave like a magnanimous victor, though. Walked down the aisle to shake hands with Asif Ali Zardari. Half-heartedly welcomed Shehbaz Sharif, but warmly shook hands with Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, although with a hint of condescending approval. The decibels were also measured and compared when Asif, Bilawal and Imran were called to sign in after oath taking. “Jeeyay Bhutto” crowd stole the show.  But PTI enthusiasts did sound as though coming close, with desk thumping and slogan chanting.

Almost each PTI member wanted to chat one-on-one with Imran Khan and tried taking the seat placed next to him that is reserved for the leader the house. Until the election of the Prime Minister, this seat has to be kept vacant. The assembly personnel often intervened to keep it so and in the process protected the PTI leader from sycophantic whispers. While sitting on his immediate left, Shah Mehmud Qureshi monopolized his attention. I was not interested in appearance, however.

For a curious reporter, the most important question is the election of the speaker. Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf does have the majority in the house. But it is razor thin. The combined opposition of the PML-N and the PPP surely savoyr the possibility of demolishing it by seeking help from smaller parties, otherwise committed to support the PTI.

The PTI has put forward Asad Qaisar as candidate for the Speaker’s office. He is a first timer to this house and mostly considered ‘provincial’ material. The PPP nominated Syed Khurshid Shah is a seasoned veteran. He has been returning to each assembly from Sukkur since 1990.

Shah Sahib is an early riser and a consummate politician. Even the most vicious political opponents acknowledge his polite conduct and pragmatic handling of complicated issues.

With a spirited campaign, the opposition has tremendous potential to get him elected to the Speaker’s Office, even if with a razor-thin margin. The PPP does not seem interested, however. The street smart, “AIK Zardari…” I believe is not interested to spring unpleasant surprises in the formative days of the PTI government. Otherwise, only a few calls here and there can easily deliver.

It will be wrong to presume that AZ does not like Khurshid Shah. The cunning politician does not in fact expect anything substantive in return from the PML-N, if he succeeds in pulling an unpleasant surprise for Imran Khan during the Speaker’s election.

Shehbaz Sharif is the issue. Asif Ali Zardari will not want to support him for the Prime Minister’s Office. The story does not end there. He will perhaps not feel too great while letting his MNAs work under his command as the Leader of the Opposition. The PML-N can still manage more unity in number-strong combined opposition ranks by suggesting someone else to lead the same.

The election for The Speaker’s Office is far more important in another context. The PML-N believes that Election-2018 has been “stolen” from it. The so-called “minus Nawaz” game is yet not over for them, however. The “conspiracy-struck” PML-N members insist that forces against them are set to show the surfacing of a “forward block” from their ranks while taking advantage of secret balloting for The Speaker’s election.

Talking one on one to me in whispers, many of them told this scribe that usual “facilitators” of the PTI from amongst the dark corners of the deep state had ensured the PTI that around a group of 20-plus members elected on the PML-N ticket would vote against the nominee of their party to convey that they have had enough of Nawaz Sharif’s combative narrative. It is time to submit and reconcile with what is set for them by forces that be. Let us see who proves correct in the end. But the simmering game has surely turned the Speaker’s election into an exercise to be watched.

 

 

NUSRAT JAVEED