ISLAMABAD: If you walked into the National Assembly press gallery before 5pm on Friday evening, you could be forgiven for wondering where everybody was.
Save for the droves of NA Secretariat staff, who were busy placing bundles of budget documents at each member’s seat, the main chamber of the lower house was all but empty ahead of the budget speech.
But just as the clock struck five, members began trickling in from the galleries, exchanging pleasantries and sharing jokes. Some began to unwrap their bundles; Capt Mohammad Safdar picked up his ‘budget burden’ and carted it across the hall towards the prime minister’s gallery.
Along the way, jocular members teased him for carrying around the donkey load when copies were available at every seat.
The house began to buzz with anticipation as the clock ticked over to fifteen minutes past the hour; the speaker walked in two minutes later as opposition leaders and government members made for their seats, and proceedings were underway.
While most members were seated by the time the khateeb wrapped up his recitation from the Holy Quran, the man of the moment was nowhere to be seen. Indeed, Senator Ishaq Dar was the last to take his seat, making it just in time to be recognised by the speaker.
After an unusual intervention from the leader of the opposition, Mr Dar reverted to his didactic self and began the annual economics lecture that is both anticipated or dreaded, depending on which side of the house you are sitting in.
For their part, the opposition was more well-behaved than usual, holding off on heckling the finance minister – who is also leading the government team negotiating terms of reference with the opposition over the proposed Panamagate commission.
But the budget speech wasn’t as well-orchestrated as the prime minister’s address last month.
On a number of occasions – such as when Mr Dar announced that the inflation rate had remained at a record low level of 3pc – treasury front-benchers had to be reminded to cheer him on.
Again, when he announced that laptops, IT equipment and second-hand clothes would be made cheaper, the applause did not quite arrive on cue.
That is not to say that there was no applause at all. Even the mere mention of power generation measures and increased allocations for education – among the prime minister’s pet projects – prompted spontaneous desk-banging from the treasury, while the opposition remained stoic.
But even this half-hearted desk banging died down as Mr Dar approached the halfway mark, and his government colleagues left him hanging several times during his speech, prompting him to turn around and ask for their appreciation.
He got his own back on a couple of occasions: first when he gestured towards the opposition front benches as he referred to the “agriculturalists and large landowners” who were seated there – notably Syed Khursheed Shah and Shah Mehmood Qureshi; then when he apologised (tongue-in-cheek) to members as he announced an increase in the prices of paan and betel nuts.
There was also a great deal of self-congratulation. As Mr Dar extolled the performance of the Pakistan Railways to the sound of more desk-thumping, Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed patted Khawaja Saad Rafique on the back as if to commend him on a job well-done.
Then, as the finance minister praised the PM’s National Health Insurance Programme, it was Saira Afzal Tarar who prompted her fellow women MNAs to applaud her performance.
As Mr Dar droned on, members could be seen engaged in various activities – anything to help pass the time. Treasury backbenchers pored over budget documents, while the studious PTI and MQM members were scribbling away furiously on their notepads.
The PPP’s trio of Dr Shazia Marri, Azra Fazal Pechuho and Dr Nafisa Shah had also hunkered down; budget documents lay sprawled before them as they listened to Ishaq Dar while looking up references in the voluminous budget compendium they had been handed.
In the press galleries, most seasoned journalists were nonplussed.
“It’s the same as it ever was. Whoever has the majority can do what they want. I remember in 1997, there were only 17 members in opposition; what do you think happened then? It’s a formula: the opposition will scream and shout and go home empty-handed. The government will always get its way,” concluded a two-decade veteran of the galleries.