Update: Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has decided that Education Minister Mujtaba Shujaur Rehman will present the budget instead of Kamran Michael. No reason has been given for selecting Mujtaba over Michael.
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) led by former prime minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif has succumbed to pressure by most of its legislators of the Punjab Provincial Assembly to not let a Christian cabinet minister present the provincial budget for 2011-12 just because of his faith.
Kamran Michael, who holds the portfolio of Punjab Minorities Affairs Ministry, was given the additional charge of the provincial Finance Ministry, a few months ago [in March] when the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which was a coalition partner of the PML-N in Punjab, was forced to quit the government in wake of widening rift between the two parties.
According to reports, the PML-N leaders are now in a quandary trying to figure out who to assign the Finance Ministry portfolio before the budget is presented before the Punjab Assembly on June 10. Several party members are reported to have objected to a Christian being given such a prominent position as that of delivering the annual budget speech and fear losing votes amongst some of their conservative, right-wing vote bank. The PML-N is already afraid of losing ground in its heartland of Punjab to other parties that have been making inroads in the province in the recent months.
However, while Michael was minister in theory, in practice the position has been managed by Sardar Zulfiqar Khan Khosa, senior adviser to Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. Khosa attended all meetings related to the budget and was the de facto head of the ministry, despite the fact that Punjab government rules prohibit an adviser from heading any departmental business, even those at a department to which he or she has been assigned.
Michael was forbidden from even contacting the provincial finance secretary or the chairman of the Planning and Development Department ever since he had assumed charge of the Finance Ministry. Michael is authorised to present the budget as Rule 136 of the Punjab Assembly Rules of Procedure requires the provincial budget to be presented by the finance minister or another minister who has been assigned his portfolio. According to the rules of the Punjab Assembly, the residual powers of any unfilled portfolios in the provincial cabinet are transferred to the chief minister until a new minister is appointed.
Shahbaz Sharif currently holds 20 portfolios himself, having failed to appoint cabinet ministers after kicking out the PPP from the ruling coalition. According to reports, PML-N members of the Punjab Assembly have suggested that the “additional portfolio” for the Finance Ministry be given to Punjab Education and Excise Minister Mujtaba Shuja Rehman in order to avoid Michael presenting the budget. A final decision on the matter is expected to be taken at a party meeting before the budget day.
Since the chief minister technically occupies the powers of finance minister, he could present the budget himself, without having to assign the portfolio to any other cabinet member.
Repeated attempts to contact Michael for his comments on the issue failed.
Napolean Qayyum, central leader of the Pakistan people’s Party Minorities Wing, lamented the discrimination of the PML-N government.
“Every citizen of this country, regardless of any religious belief, has an equal claim to it, and its legislature. The PML-N needs to decide what sort of message it wants to send to the world, and show that they are capable of rising above the petty mindset of some of their supporters. Condoning such bigotry and intolerance will only confirm the worst impressions about Pakistanis in general and the PML-N in specific that the world already harbors,” he said.
Qayyum said that despite party differences with Michael, he acknowledged the Christian leader’s commitment towards the uplift of people belonging to all faiths. However, he criticized Michael’s PML-N for promoting extremism and religious violence in Pakistan’s most populous province.
“There is a spike in incidents of religious violence whenever the PML-N comes into power in the province. 1n 1997, Christians in Shantinagar were attacked. Sporadic killings of Ahmedis are a routine. The carnage in Gojra in which at least seven Christians were burnt alive on false charges of blasphemy also expose the PML-N’s policy towards minorities... there’s always a PML-N legislator or leader involved in violence against minorities, why is it so?”