Parliamentary sessions would traditionally begin with the first working day of a week. We are living in interesting times, though. And the Imran government affirmed the unusual sides of confusing times by summoning the national assembly to start meeting at 4 PM Friday. 

The timing coincided with the first power show that all the opposition parties, excluding Jamaat-e-Islami, had decided to stage after forming an alliance named Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). A city in the heart of Central Punjab, Gujranwala, was selected for launching a series of rallies aimed at building pressure against the Imran government. It surely was too naïve to presume that the national assembly sitting could overshadow the event in Gujranwala. 

With the clear intent of preventing a lively show in that city, the Punjab administration under visible directions from Islamabad, rather helped building the hype about it. It took too long to decide whether the PDM should be allowed to hold the rally in a stadium there. Boastful hints were also dropped for promoting the message that Ms Maryam Nawaz would not be allowed to address the same. As if to provide content to the same message, a row of huge containers was also erected outside her residence in Lahore two days ago. 

The daughter and apparent political heir of Nawaz Sharif, who himself is currently living in London, has surely established her charismatic pull when it comes to mobilize and energize the so-called vote bank, the “sacked and sentenced” former prime minister had diligently been cultivating since 1985. 

Without her presence in Gujranwala, the PDM rally would have looked like a show, managed and dominated by Maulana Fazlur Rehman. He leads an outfit, Jamiat-e-Ulma-e-Islam (JUI), historically associated with religious-right. Teachers and students of MADARISS (religious schools) mostly furnish “crowds” for his rallies, which seldom look inclusive and pluralistic. 

Attempts were also made to persuade Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the youthful chairman of Pakistan People Party (PPP), to stay away from the PDM. The “liberal” reputation and credentials of his party were often referred to for convincing him. When the said spin failed to deliver, he was passionately told to focus on the “big picture” and weigh his chances in its context. 

With his address to the All Parties Conference (APC), held on September 20, 2020, due to persistent efforts of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Nawaz Sharif is perceived to have “burnt bridges” with forces, presumably playing the decisive role in setting the political scenes in Pakistan. The PPP leader was advised to stay put on ‘safe’ side of the “red line.”

When nothing seemed working, the police and city administration of Gujranwala desperately rushed for obvious overkill. Not less than six densely populated districts of Central Punjab surround this town. For the past two days, all the entry and exit points of Gujranwala witnessed hectic attempts of blocking them. The Police also began pretending as if all set to arrest local leaders of Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).

Prominent leaders of the same party were also discouraged to hold “mobilizing meetings” after reaching the town in the name of executing guidelines, set to prevent the second wave of COVID-19. Instead of instilling fear and chaos, the administrative overkill rather provoked the PML-N supporters to push back with vigor. 

Ms. Maryam Nawaz, Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari were heading to Gujranwala, while I wrote this column. They were not expected to reach there until fairly late in the evening and set to address a massive and charged rally. The anticipated energy of this rally should not surprise anyone, though. After all, Gujranwala and adjacent districts have consistently been voting for the PML-N candidates in almost each election since 1990. The Imran government should rather have taken the impact of this rally with confidence-conveying chill. For no solid reason, it opted to behave otherwise.

Fixing the national assembly sitting on Friday afternoon also conveyed but panics dictating the government behavior these days. Prime Minister Imran Khan rarely visits the parliament building. But he came there, at least three hours before the national assembly sitting of Friday. After holding one-on-one meetings with some influential PTI legislators, he later presided over the parliamentary party meeting as well.

At the outset of the this meeting, Sanaullah Mastikhel told the prime minister, point blank, that majority of people were finding it extremely difficult to cope with crippling inflation and relentless unemployment. He happens to be an iconic representative of the usual crowd of “electables,” instinctively addicted to sail with the wind. Yet, Mastikhel surely expressed what the majority of mainstream PTI legislators had been delirious whispering for the past many months in off-the-record meetings with parliamentary reporters.

Prime Minister attempted to assuage the stated and unstated bickering by holding the previous governments of “looters and plunderers” for the current problems of his government. Still he remained confident of smooth sailing and hardly looked worried about the PDM and its efforts to mobilize streets against his government. Perhaps to sustain the “can-do” and “we-will-pass-through-it” mood, he also led his parliamentarians to the house and kept sitting on his seat for long.

But the opposition legislators “welcomed” him with loud and ceaseless chants, which took on the person of Prime Minister with mocking and insulting refrains. Asad Qaisar, the Speaker, tried hard to generate business-as-usual air for the Friday sitting. After the opening rites, he straight came to “question hour.” But the noisy chants in the house did not let him reach even the second question. Prime Minister also left the house in anger and the Speaker adjourned the house for “20 minutes.” He was forced to do the same after presiding over proceedings, which lasted for 11 minutes only. 

In spite of stretching the break for more than 40 minutes, Asad Qaisar could not manage calm in the house. Prime Minister did not return when the sitting resumed. Syed Navid Qamar instantly stood from the PPP benches to firmly tell the Speaker that he was playing deceptive games with the opposition. “We were told, categorically,” he claimed, “that the national assembly session would start from October 19. 

But you have called it to meet on Friday while knowing well that most of us would be busy at the rally in Gujranwala.” After expressing the accumulated annoyance he announced walking out of the house.

After his leaving, an opposition member pressed for the headcount to prove quorum. After hectic efforts, the government did show the required numbers. But the opposition members returned in full strength to resume noisy chants. Feeling completely helpless Asad Qaisar was left with no choice but to adjourn until Monday afternoon. 

It should be taken for granted that the opposition would act far more aggressively during the days to come. Until Monday, they would certainly be feeling charged after holding not one but two rallies; after Gujranwala the PDM would hold another rally in Karachi on Sunday. And they will have a full week to mark their presence in the national assembly, until holding of another rally in Quetta on October 25.

Asad Qaisar, the speaker, had recklessly demolished his clout by slavishly running the house as per the hawkish dictates of his leaders. PTI’s handlers of the parliamentary business prefer to bulldoze legislation. Since August 2018, they had consistently been treating the whole opposition with self-righteous contempt as well. The tide is definitely set to turn from now on.