Night of the long knives

  • Another first by Khan


The sacking of Asad Umar as finance minister Thursday morning and later in the evening a few key ministers’ portfolios reshuffled has raised many questions about the style of governance of the barely eight months old PTI government. Although Khan had been saying that his cabinet members’ future will be determined by their performance, the alacrity of his move surprised even some of his worst critics.

This paper succinctly summed it up by terming the turmoil in the cabinet as the ‘Thursday night massacre.’ So far as Asad Umar is concerned, he had it coming for a while. But wallowing in his arrogance he failed to smell the coffee beans.

While he was busy negotiating with the IMF in Washington and savouring the limelight engaging the media in New York his fate was sealed in Islamabad last Sunday. Ensconced with his close advisors the prime minister expressed his annoyance with his finance minister. Reportedly he said that he had lost confidence in Asad’s ability to handle the economy and hence wanted him out immediately.

It is indeed surprising that the premier waited till Thursday to show the door to his erstwhile blue-eyed boy. Last Monday in my TV talk show on 92 News, I had specifically said that the finance minister would be made to quit even before the IMF bailout package was sealed.

Admittedly they were not exactly paragons of virtue and good governance but the stark reality that the buck now stopped at the door of the incumbents was conveniently ignored

On his return from the US, brimming with his signature confidence, Umar pooh-poohed reports about his imminent departure. Ironically, at the time information minister Fawad Chaudhry in his usual acerbic style warned the media not to spread such canards. Little did he know that he was on the chop list as well.

Unsurprisingly perhaps owing to paucity of talent and experience in the PTI folds most new faces in the cabinet do not belong to the party. In fact, the choice that Khan made betrays a sense of desperation on his part.

Take the case of the advisor on finance Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh. He has held the same portfolio in the last PPP government for a couple of years. He had served as finance minister in Sindh and minister for privatisation during Musharraf’s regime.

Having been previously associated with the World Bank the affable doctor unlike Asad Umar is not new to the world of finance and the working of IFIs (international finance institutions). Nonetheless Sheikh’s appointment takes a little wind out of PTI’s consistent narrative that the last PPP government was incompetent and thoroughly corrupt, just like the PML-N government after it.

Asad Umar’s departure also signifies a belated realisation on the part of the government that the negotiating strategy with the IMF had gone terribly wrong. First the mantra was that we do not need go for an IMF bailout. Later it was maybe we do, and then a no again. Finally, when the government decided to negotiate an IMF bailout package a lot of damage to the economy had already been done.

The excuse proffered by the finance minister downwards for the delay was that with ostensibly better relations with Washington, IMF conditionalities would be somehow less stringent. In reality the reverse happened: the IMF dealt a tough hand to the GOP (Government of Pakistan).

Apart from media reports the government has not disclosed the conditionalities imposed by the international lending agency. But it is no longer a secret they include free float of rupee, an autonomous State Bank, removal of subsidies on gas and electricity and reduction of fiscal deficit.

There are unconfirmed reports that the IMF wants to know the exact details and financing of CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) and nature of defence co-operation with China as well.

The PTI when it assumed power was counselled by independent economists, members of Khan’s kitchen cabinet and even by some western diplomats to immediately go far an IMF package. But a mixture of naivety, inexperience and arrogance prevented the government from doing so.

Sadly the prime minister and most of his team members became prisoners of their own rhetoric, brazenly claiming that mother of all ills were the previous PML-N and PPP governments. Admittedly they were not exactly paragons of virtue and good governance but the stark reality that the buck now stopped at the door of the incumbents was conveniently ignored.

It took exactly eight months and record high inflation for the present government to realise that the proverbial had hit the fan. Dr Sheikh is a brave man to accept the daunting challenge of steering such an ailing economy.

According to his predecessor the economy is out of intensive care and well on the road to mend. But in reality, speaking in medical terms it is a critical patient butchered by amateur surgeons.

Sheikh, not new to the corridors of the finance ministry should be allowed to choose his own team and given a free hand. He will need a lot of skill and good luck to boot.

Another surprise induction in the reshuffled cabinet is that of the special assistant on information and broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan who had joined PTI only days before the 2018 election. She was minister for information and broadcasting in the previous PPP regime as well.

The question that begs an answer is that by showing the door to Fawad Chaudhry is the PTI government going to change its incendiary rhetoric as well? Admittedly being information minister is a tough albeit high profile job.

Most ministers in their respective comfort zones tell the prime minister that the government is doing quite well but its public relations team is not properly projecting the its achievements. In Fawad’s case however, he fell victim to his own arrogance by openly challenging the prime minister’s nominated managing director of the PTV.

Another interesting ouster is that of minister of petroleum and natural resources Ghulam Sarwar Khan. Nadeem Babar who is already chairman of Task Force on Energy as special assistant on petroleum division has replaced him. Mr Babar was closely advising the Sharifs on power projects as well.

Sarwar an astute politician, who defeated Nisar Ali Khan from two constituencies in the 2018 general elections, was quite out of his depth in the energy ministry. Angry and upset over his exit he almost quit the cabinet.

The appointment of brigadier (Retd) Ijaz Shah- close friend and former associate of general (Retd) Pervez Musharraf- as interior minister has raised many an eyebrows. Since the job of the interior minister demands close liaison with the military especially the MI (military intelligence) and the ISI (inter-services intelligence) Shah with his vast intelligence and security background is eminently suited for the job. He is viewed by the opposition as a nominee of the milt establishment.

All said and done the reshuffle signifies the suzerainty of unelected technocrats in key ministries. Most of them do not share the core PTI ethos.

Does this mean the fabled government of technocrats at the expense of politicians is here? Some have even labelled the reshuffle as harking back to the presidential system.