Gig’s up!

  • In eight months

A federal cabinet reshuffle in the first eight months of a government looks pretty bad, it looks worse when the changes begin with the Finance portfolio and even worse when the minister being shown the door is one of the closest long-time aides to the PM who had been projected by the latter (pre- and post-electoral victory) as an economic Messiah and finance Guru. Granted, Asad Umar was dealt a terrible hand, a 7-2 at hold’em if you will, holding which, the only logical thing to do at Poker at least is bluff till the river. But this wasn’t poker, and when you’ve promised wondrous reforms for the perpetually struggling Pakistani economy, best have a solid mid- to long-term plan to follow.

For half a year after taking office the former Finance Minister spun a tale where the ‘crisis was averted’ and the economy was “out of the ICU”. It remains to be seen whether his claim of negotiating the best IMF deal by delaying the inevitable appeal to the Fund holds true, as no details about the package are available presently. All the bravado quickly faded and during his last two months a defensive Umar held multiple press conferences explaining the fundamentals of macroeconomics, Pakistan’s debt problem that can’t be wished away and of course how the disastrous policies of previous governments have all but obliterated the economy. Yes, it was all ‘fruit chaat in Ramzan’ and cricket analogies to go with it until a few days ago.

Right now there are three major events on the horizon that are directly related to the economy requiring the immediate attention of an experienced competent statesman who understands public policy, and more importantly knows the ins and outs of the rigid and complex bureaucracy that is at the core of the Finance Ministry. There’s the presentation of the PTI’s first federal budget next month, the FATF review in June for which a progress report was submitted five days ago and finalising an IMF bailout package. Does Hafeez Sheikh fit the bill? He has held the portfolio before, is a technocrat and has the experience. Being unelected he doesn’t have to worry about a voter base while taking the unpopular decisions. We should have an answer soon enough as all these testing events fall within weeks of each other.

That Asad Umar was booked to defend his abysmal performance on several TV talk shows in the coming days as Finance Minister before his abrupt removal from office raises serious questions. While he brushed away rumors of his imminent exit as the mere wishful thinking of a few, the former Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry (also axed in the same reshuffle) sent out PEMRA notices to television channels that had reported the Finance Minister’s imminent sacking. Perhaps some external pressures were at play to accelerate the move. One hopes that at least the Prime Minister was privy to the changes well before Thursday afternoon.

Within the party there were serious apprehensions over letting Umar continue as Finance Minister. The hypocrisy associated with his push for an upcoming amnesty scheme was probably tougher than usual to swallow for his fellow cabinet members who in the end made sure no such policy had the party’s name on it. Tussles with other party loyalists had also mired his term in office. Surely that is only part of the reason but it is clear that the decision to remove Umar so soon, given the hype will deal a blow to the party in a purely political sense. Add Fawad Chaudhry to the mix and it is an optics nightmare.

Another significant development is that of the Prime Minister letting go of the Interior Ministry with seat warmer Shehryar Afridi getting SAFRON and the portfolio being given to former spymaster Brigadier (retd) Ijaz Shah. He has been with the PTI for some time and after two failed attempts to win from Nankana Sahib was finally able to secure a victory in the last general elections. He is not much liked by the opposition. Benazir Bhutto had named Ijaz Shah as someone who should be investigated if she was assassinated and the N-League has a past with him as well (from his IB days). Allegations of his involvement– never proven– in high profile foreign policy-terrorism related incidents like the Daniel Pearl abduction and the Osama Bin Laden operation make Shah a controversial choice to say the least. However, given the current wave of terrorism in Balochistan it is probably better to have a full time Interior Minister with experience in espionage and knowledge of the threat posed by militants.

This shake-up was inevitable. From the get-go there was an atmosphere of chaos surrounding the PTI’s attempt at ‘fixing things’. Apart from adding to the already enormous debt (foreign and domestic) their ruthless pursuit of a misplaced notion about ‘accountability’ has only added to their economic woes. What change this injection of unelected technocrats in the Cabinet brings, no one knows. The so-called “change” that was promised still remains to be seen!