Chanting from the galleries

ISLAMABAD: 2:59PM: The hall of the National Assembly is buzzing with excitement. Members on both sides are out in full force, but everyone’s busy chatting. In groups of three or five, MNAs are scattered across the hall, engrossed in discussion and last-minute strategy sessions. Abdul Qadir Baloch and Chaudhry Tanveer Hussain are the only two former ministers seated in the front rows.

A calm sense of the inevitable pervades the hall, and the atmosphere inside is no different from most other days. This will soon change.

3:06pm: Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Sheikh Rashid Ahmed stroll into the assembly hall. On the treasury benches, Saira Afzal Tarar embraces Anusha Rehman with a clear ‘I’m so glad you’re here!’ expression.

Senators line the VIP galleries behind the speaker’s dais, but the turnout inside the house is not that impressive. Consultations continue on the opposition benches.

3:14pm: The PML-N boys’ club is out in full force; age is no bar and everyone from young Lyallpuri Abid Sher Ali to the retired armyman Tahir Iqbal is getting in on the action. Backs are slapped and loud guffawing sounds emanate from the brat pack.

3:16pm: Assembly staff begin to make a headcount. The PTI benches, meanwhile, are deep in discussion. The front row crowd of Mr Qureshi, Ms Mazari, Arif Alvi and Shafqat Mehmood are joined by backbenchers Murad Saeed, Asad Umar and Sheheryar Niazi.

3:19pm: Government whip Sheikh Aftab walks into the house and — as if by magic — the treasury benches appear packed to the brim.

3:25pm: Fazlur Rehman walks in and makes a beeline for former prime minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali, but the government front benches are still empty. “Everyone’s in the speaker’s chamber; nothing is happening in the house,” observes a reporter sauntering into the press galleries, where it is becoming harder and harder to find a seat.

Suddenly, everyone’s attention turns to one of the doors to the visitor’s gallery, where a trio of burly sergeants are doing their best to hold a horde of political workers at bay. The impasse continues for a few minutes, and the chants from the other side of the door become louder, until…

3:30pm: A heaving horde pushes its way into the half-full visitor’s gallery, clambering over those already seated and pushing their way over to the press section. They are intercepted by NA security, but the poor sergeants are outnumbered. These are obviously PML-N supporters, summoned by the party leadership to exert pressure on the opposition and drown them out, if need be. There is a mad dash for seats in the galleries and within minutes, there are more onlookers in the assembly hall than actual parliamentarians.

3:51pm: The speaker enters and proceedings are under way. Government members stream into the chamber and take their seats. The front bench is finally full, except for the two seats on either side of Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. One of them is reserved for the new leader of the house, but the other — between him and Khawaja Asif — remains inexplicably vacant.

The MQM, whose members could be seen scurrying around the hall just minutes ago, is nowhere to be seen.

3:55pm: The man who would be PM enters the assembly hall, flanked by the government whip. He quietly heads towards the front rows, greeting the opposition leader and senior government figures on the way, and settles into his old ministerial seat next to the JUI-F chief for the last time.

4:01pm: Proceedings get under way after the speaker swears in Mohammad Usman Badani, the newest MNA from NA-260. The house also prays for the souls of those killed and injured by terrorist attacks in Lahore, Quetta, Parachinar and the Ahmedpur East tragedy.

The energy of the treasury benches is infectious; their attitude is a far cry from the despondency that was visible following the Supreme Court verdict against the prime minister. Sheikh Rashid is relentlessly heckled by the likes of Abid Sher Ali and Mian Abdul Mannan.

“No finesse, no preparation; don’t they believe in rehearsals?” a TV anchor comments when things fail to go as planned. But as soon as ruling party members emerge from the lobbies after having cast their votes, all is revealed.

Carrying banners emblazoned with photos of the ousted Nawaz Sharif, women members of the PML-N emerge chanting full-throated slogans. Talal Chaudhry, Khurram Dastagir, Tariq Fazal Chaudhry, all are on the #TodayWeAreAllNawaz bandwagon.

The sloganeering members are joined by the party supporters packed into the visitor’s galleries, who echo the cries of government members despite the speaker’s admonitions.

The charged ruling party leaders march towards the speaker’s dais, where an unruly band of opposition lawmakers are trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to counter the decidedly pro-Nawaz sentiment in the room.

But Deputy Speaker Murtaza Abbasi, Sheikh Aftab and Khawaja Saad Rafique intervene just in time to prevent an altercation; the latter has to force Capt Safdar all the way back to his seat just to keep Mr Sharif’s son-in-law from getting into a brawl.

Mr Rafique’s shuttle diplomacy pays dividends for Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s showing in the election for the leader of the house. It was his untiring way with words that probably convinced Dr Farooq Sattar and his party — who had been waiting in the wings while everyone else voted — to cast their ballots in favour of the ruling party candidate.

He also tried his best to secure the support of Awami National Party’s Ghulam Bilour and Gwadar MNA Sayed Essa Noori, the two men who abstained from voting until the last.

But spare a thought for the PM-elect, pushed into the spotlight by virtue of being his predecessor’s choice. Indeed, it must be a heady feeling for the otherwise camera-shy and no-nonsense legislator to hear the halls of parliament reverberating with slogans in his favour.

Only, the name they are chanting isn’t his: “Wazir-i-Azam Nawaz Sharif, Wazir-i-Azam Shahbaz Sharif” was the cry as he goes around greeting his opponents after the results of the election are announced.

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2017

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