Kabir has organised this day for me and he has an exciting schedule of government MNAs and Ministers lined up in the Pakistani National Assembly buildings in Islamabad. We are both picked up by Mubashir, an assistant and cousin to the Deputy Speaker, and a Bhutan. This means he is white with green eyes, his hair is light brown but he has noticeable blonde hairs in his moustache and beard. He comments that if I wore shalwar kameez and a Chitrali Topi I would be indistinguishable from them.
Mubashir’s driver takes us to the National Assembly buildings, en route the police presence is overbearing and on every corner. Mubashir opens the sun roof and puts a blue police light above. Every junction of the roads surrounding the parliament buildings are, as you would expect, blocked by both the military and police. There are barbed wire blockades and patrols of armed soldiers. Bunkers are built in to the sides of the roads with helmeted soldiers carrying assault rifles. After being stopped twice and questioned, Mubashir gives directions for us to pull into a subterranean car park. A guard in military attire and peaked hat salutes us and we follow him into the National Assembly building from underground. The complex is vast, the decor is twenty years old and a little scruffy, we go into a lift, go up a floor or two and head straight into the Deputy Speaker’s waiting room. The anti rooms are packed with aides, we pass them and then bypass twenty or thirty constituents and we go straight into his main office. Mubashir explains that the Deputy Speaker is running late, is still in session, and suggests we go to watch him from the VIP gallery. We agree.
At all times we have a security escort, but I believe it is more to ensure we don’t get lost, and that we don’t go where we shouldn’t. We enter the VIP entrance, a guard protests we havn’t any papers to allow us here, our guard tells him off and we sit down. These are the best seats in the house. The assembly room is large and circular. The National Assembly members sit on the ground floor and the Senators (our House of Lords) sit on a gallery above them. There is a beautiful gold circular centerpiece elevated from the ceiling with Arabic script from the Qur’an. Only ten meters away is the charismatic Leader of the Opposition Nisar Ali Khan. He stands and shouts, waves his hand in the air and shouts more. He accuses the Prime Minster and members of the ruling PPP of corruption. He says Transparency International has proved the PPP are corrupt, they reply in turn that Transparency International itself is corrupt!
The proceedings of the house are done in English, the Deputy Speaker is in the chair, his name is Faisal Karim Kundi and he is friends with Kabir. Some MNAs will speak entirely in Urdu, others will speak entirely in English, others will mix and match. The Prime Minister walks in casually and people walk over and shake his hand, so does the Leader of the Opposition. MNAs don’t shout “Yeah Yeah Yeah” like in the UK, they clap the table top if they agree with something. Kabir says they’ve tried to copy the Commons but its gone horribly wrong. It is also far more animated than the Commons, one MNA was shouting with rage that he was being disallowed to speak to his amendment to a bill, and I am informed that fights have been known to break out on the floor here. Even so, the Assembly is poorly attended and only a quarter full, these MNAs apparently have more holidays than sessions.
We get bored and I am delighted that I can smoke in the corridors of power. It is suggested we wait in the actual Speaker’s office (she is on holiday) and we agree. Expecting it to be full we both find ourselves alone in an Office of State. A large mahogany desk is at one end of the room, two Pakistan flags are either side of the Speakers green leather chair. Above her chair, for everyone to see, is a large portrait of Jinnah. One item of particular interest is the actual letter of resignation from General Musharraf, it is even signed by him. I speculate how much it is worth as I have collected autographs in the past.
We get bored of waiting and are informed that the Dep Speaker is still running late, so we go for lunch. A guide escorts us to the dining room reserved only for MNAs. Unfortunately it resembles a leisure centre canteen. We do actually get to meet Faisal Karim Kundi, but he only has time to have his picture taken with us, which will go on his website. However it was pleasant to sit in with him and see how he dealt with eight constituents at a time.
We leave and take the Dep Speaker’s bullet proof car to Kashmir House, this is where the Kashmir Government Ministers have their apartments. It is still in Islamabad of course. This building is less grand than all the other Pakistan governmental buildings (all of which are quite plain, modern, concrete and monolithic), we are escorted in by a man with an AK-47 and led to Mehmood Riaz’s apartment, the Minister for Overseas, Information and Environment.
Apparently the Minister is also a British citizen and lived in Slough for several years. His wife and children are still there and he visits them on holiday. Mr Riaz, who is an amiable and polite man, tells us that he, himself, narrowly avoided a bomb which blasted 30ft from his car only this month in Islamabad. He has a very influential voice in determining which way Kashmiris vote in Britain, and his electorate is actually made up of several hundreds of thousands of Kashmiris who live in Britain and have a vote from abroad.
Our final outing of the day is dinner at Wazir Ahmad Jogezai’s house. He is the former Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, and a PPP (Pakistani People’s Party) member. He was a MNA for thirty years. En route we pick up Nadeem. Jogezai must be about seventy, is rotund and a real character. He has several friends at his lounge table and they are smoking cigarettes and cigars. The conversation is good, amongst the group are a quiet and sober young man who is to soon present a current affairs and political show on Pakistani television, and Ali Qadir Gilani, the impressive Group Director of Interflow Group – a media group which own cinemas, news channels and radio stations. Wazir, our host, provides us with a delicious spread of local food and by the end of the night, he tells me I can be counted as a member of his family and visit whenever I please.