Wednesday, April 24, 2019
THE change may have been in the offing for some time, but still the abruptness of it was disconcerting. The cabinet shake-up within eight months of coming to power indicates that a serious problem has beset the PTI government. The sacking of a few ministers and reshuffling cabinet positions is not likely to stem the rot. Now a hapless prime minister is seeking a technocratic solution to his predicament. Can it work?
Nothing could be more bizarre than the decision to sack the country’s finance minister in the middle of critical negotiations with the IMF and just weeks before the announcement of the annual budget. Asad Umar may have his shortcomings, but he cannot be held solely responsible for the chaos in economic policy. The prime minister must accept part of the blame for the drift too.
It was extremely humiliating for a leading member of government and the party to be shown the door in this manner. The news about his imminent exit was already out when Asad Umar was still in Washington negotiating a bailout package with the IMF. Hours before the notification, he sounded secure about his position. Surely he had been in the eye of the storm for quite some time and had also faced criticism for his handling of the economy within the party. Yet, few expected the axe to fall in this way.
Greater reliance on technocrats in a parliamentary form of government weakens the political process.
Then there is also the question about the other factors influencing the shake-up. Curiously, the rumours about the change suddenly gained currency after the reported interaction of a group of media persons with the top military leadership. The security establishment appears increasingly concerned about the financial crisis. A floundering PTI government has allowed it to further expand its space. Its shadow is now perceptible over a wider political spectrum.
There may not be any doubt about the competence of Hafeez Sheikh, but his choice as the new economic czar reinforces the perception of the growing role of the establishment in policy matters. Hafeez Sheikh’s name came from nowhere at the last moment. It seems that even senior PTI leaders were not in the loop.
A former finance minister in the last PPP government who had also been an important member of the Musharraf government, Sheikh was never known to have any association even remotely with the PTI. It’s no more a secret that his induction in the PPP government also came on the recommendation of the then security leadership. Even though he is very much an experienced hand and an able economist, the challenges he will be facing are daunting.
Whether or not the new economic adviser will be able to deliver depends largely on the political will of the PTI government. One cannot expect miracles to happen with a weak political leadership unable to take tough decisions and effectively implement much-needed structural reforms. Moreover, for economic reform to work, there is also a need for the government to build political consensus. It needs more than just putting a competent economist at the helm.
It is apparent that Sheikh’s appointment is part of a move by the prime minister to rely more on technocrats to run the government. Besides finance, some other key ministries are headed by non-elected advisers now, including commerce, health and information. Surely technocrats are important as they bring in expertise where it is lacking, but the responsibility of policy formulation cannot be left with the non-elected technocrats.
No policy can be successful if it is not based on ground and political realities. Greater reliance on technocrats in a parliamentary form of government weakens the political process. The idea of technocrats delivering good governance is a myth and has repeatedly been proved wrong. As the PTI government relies more on non-elected technocrats, the party has become weaker.Restructuring the cabinet is indeed part of a normal political process. Ministers who do not perform ought to be sent home, but arbitrary decisions can also have a demoralising effect on the party and government. The manner in which the changes have been made has certainly not reinforced the confidence of the party in the leadership. Some of the new appointments are extremely controversial.While Sheikh’s appointment was a surprise, perhaps Khan’s most controversial move is the elevation of retired Brig Ijaz Shah as the new interior minister, a portfolio that was earlier held by the prime minister himself. A former Intelligence Bureau chief, Shah now holds one of the most powerful positions in the federal cabinet. The move has reinforced the perception that Khan’s government represents Musharraf’s legacy.
The induction in the cabinet of such relics of the past prompts an important question, and one that negates Khan’s promises to break with the status quo and introduce a new generation of leaders. At this point, the PTI government looks no different from previous governments. The fact that there’s still more of the old than the new has further dented the PTI’s claim of being a party of change.
Disarray and widening divisions in the party are more palpable post cabinet shake-up. The speculation about a change of guard in Punjab and KP has intensified the jostling among various groups and factions within the party. Khan’s recent warning to the provincial chief ministers to get their act together is viewed as a signal for change. But continued indecisiveness has added to the prevailing uncertainty, further affecting governance in the provinces.
Most worrisome is the ruling party’s weakening hold in parliament. The PTI’s inability to effectively defend the government in the face of an increasingly aggressive opposition has been badly exposed in recent sessions. It was an embarrassing situation for the ruling party when Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari launched a blistering attack on the government and the prime minister in the current National Assembly session. There was no one from the front benches to counter the criticism.
What the prime minister will not understand is that merely turning to technocrats may not deliver. More than new faces, the government needs a clear direction and a vision for change.
Chairman PPP Bilawal Bhutto made it big on Monday in the Parliament when he spoke scathingly at length about the conduct of the Prime Minister, his Ministers and his government’s total failure in running the affairs of the state and of ruining the economy in particular. Vintage journalist like me, sitting many thousand miles away from the Parliament could only make an evaluation by interpreting body language and his gift of the gab.
Bilawal’s tone and tenor took me back to the United Nations in 1965 and 1971 when martyred Zulfikar Ali Bhutto besieged the UN by his forceful presentation of Pakistan’s case. I have also had the pleasure of listening to Bhutto Sahib spell-binding speeches in his public meetings. Bilawal’s Monday speech was stunning too. There was spontaneity in applause to him. Members seemed to love him-perhaps they saw in him reincarnation of his grand father.
It was more substantive and relevant to the facts. He shred to pieces the first reshuffle in the PTI cabinet. The eight ministers that Khan has inducted-all seemed to share a unique niche in the galley of rogues. IK replaced his blue eyed finance minister who he had introduced to the world as the panacea to all his financial ills. Had he appointed somebody known for better economic skills rather than pick up former President Zardari’s finance minister who was shown the door by the PPPP when it learnt that he had assured his contacts in IMF and Washington that he would rationalise the defence budget.
Bilawal Bhutto raised a number of questions of public interest in the Parliament. It included why did IK showed indecent haste in packing up Asad Umar when -as he had claimed after his visit to Washington for talks with IMF—that a bailout package is almost agreed. And he was upbeat about the budget next month. However, it was too pious a promise by him to be true. Forces other than domestic seemed to have prevailed on the Prime Minister to take a shabby u-turn.
One gave Pakistan nuclear deterrence while his daughter Benazir provided missile technology. Indeed, non-elected or selected rulers may deny them their rightful place but love for them cannot be erased from the heart and soul of the masses.
Notwithstanding the fact that Finance Minister is important in any government–in particular the nature of society that we have-almost a police state-interior Minister is the icing on the cake. Bhutto is absolutely right in hammering out at the PTI government, reminding the Prime Minister of the serious allegations against the newly-appointed Minister for Interior -former Brigadier of ISI–Ijaz Ahmad Shah-known as spy master and political engineering– over his alleged involvement in the murder of Wall Street Journal’s South Asia Bureau Chief Daniel Pearl who was kidnapped on January 23, 2002 from Karachi, and later beheaded by his captors.
One may recall that Pearl’s alleged kidnapper Omar Saeed Sheikh (recruited by Maulana Masood Azhar from London and involved in beheading of four foreign tourists in Indian held Kashmir) under too much pressure from President George Bush Jr. forced Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to expedite Omar Saeed Sheikh’s arrest. And lo and behold, his close buddy Ijaz Shah who was a facilitator to Omar came to his rescue to get him surrender at his house in Lahore where he was serving as Home Secretary.
Omar was given an assurance that no harm would come to him. He was sentenced to death in 2002 but he is still alive. With the main accused in martyred Benazir Bhutto’s murder having been allowed to run away from Pakistan , to let him escape murder trials of Bhutto and Baloch nationalist leader Nawab Akbar Bugti, the appointment of GPM’s buddy involved in his various acts of omission and commission is a clear indication that if Musharraf survives his lethal illness, he could try to stage a come back.Bilawal also accused Ejaz Shah of being in cahoots with terrorist organisations. Without naming others, he charged that certain members of the federal cabinet were facilitators of terrorists and had links to banned outfits. Some PTI Ministers won elections on being supported by terrorist organisations. PPPP and ANP candidates were threatened with physical elimination. I think Bilawal is absolutely right to call upon the PTI government to remove all ministers who have “ties with proscribed organisations”.
Indeed, social media has plethora of videos of his ministers kow-towing with the known terrorist groups. One is told that despite the fact that his mentor Maulana Samiul Haq (JUIS) got mysteriously murdered, his Madressah e Haqqaniya-once a known cradle for training Taliban continues to get millions of rupees in assistance for the Madressah. Bringing PM Khan into his line of fire, Bilawal said: “You [PM] can’t hide your own incompetence by reshuffling your federal cabinet.”
As if it was not enough, the PPP chairman rightly went on to say that the government must give answer to the people over the ouster of finance minister Asad Umar. “He has left the economy in tatters with sky rocketing inflation. Bilawal also questioned the incumbent government: “What was the use of reshuffling these ministers and putting the same people in those positions who served in the previous governments?” The joke viral in the social media is that time would soon come when PTI would seek change in party’s name to PPPPP or PMLN-I. At the moment there are eight ministers who were in PPPP including PTI Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Finance Adviser Hafeez Sheikh, heavy weight Special Assistant Information Firdous Ashiq Awan and Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood. Others belong to PMLN.
Bilawal was absolutely right in reminding the NA Speaker of the rules for the conduct of the house. Indeed, he did not resort to PTI’s vulgar rhetoric and was critical of indulgence in diatribe in absentia when he was called a traitor. He however, warned that the house should be evenly conducted within the parameters of decency. He recalled that Benazir Bhutto and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto were both branded as enemies of the state by the military rulers and their cronies like Sheikh Rasheed. One gave Pakistan nuclear deterrence while his daughter Benazir provided missile technology. Indeed, non-elected or selected rulers may deny them their rightful place but love for them cannot be erased from the heart and soul of the masses.
A bomb blast ripped through the Hazarganji market in Balochistan’s Quetta earlier this month killing at least 20 people. For Pakistan’s Hazara community the incident “carried the eerie sense of lurid déjà vu”, as a Diplomat report called it.