The finance minister has left the building. The question is whether he has left it with stronger foundations or left it burning. The man that the PTI had presented as its ‘financial wizard’ – despite his questionable performance at Engro – Asad Umar has said that he is stepping down from the cabinet. The decision was announced via Twitter by Umar, who only a few days back returned from Washington after negotiating a deal with the IMF. The situation has left many in the PTI’s ranks with a feeling of dismay, while others see chaos at the helm of affairs. There is no more important portfolio than finance under these current times, especially since immediately after taking over power, the PTI had pressed the panic button on the economy. The impression before the elections was that Umar was the man to fix it; he was the economic messiah that PM Imran Khan had promised would build ‘Naya Pakistan’. Time and again, we heard from Imran Khan how Asad Umar was the man the economy had been waiting for. Despite that, there had been reports that trouble was brewing for Umar even within two months of him taking office. When reports started circulating this week that Umar would be a casualty in a coming cabinet shake-up, the government issued stern denials. But now, after Umar’s departure has been confirmed, we are left with a distinct feeling that all may not be well at the helm of government.
Asad Umar leaves a tarnished legacy as finance minister. Under his tenure, the growth rate has fallen by two percent in nine months, inflation has hit almost ten percent, gas prices have jumped up by over 40 percent and the Pakistani currency has depreciated. Having promised pain for the Pakistani public before light and roses at the end of the tunnel, Umar has left his post before any signs of improvement. While he says he still has faith in Prime Minister Imran Khan, his refusal to take the energy portfolio tells a different story. In his press conference after stepping down, Umar maintained that his assessment of the economy was sound and so were the actions he took, but himself admitted that any change should have happened earlier.
The logic of allowing a change in finance minister on the cusp of a deal with the IMF and the announcement of the next budget seems to be rather odd – and ill-thought-out. And the fact that there seemed intense confusion – and speculation, without any word from the government – after Asad Umar’s resignation as to who his replacement would be doesn’t also bode well for any future such decisions. It is clear that if Umar was thinking of quitting – or under pressure to do so – he should not have gone or been sent to Washington. It is also becoming clear that the more the PTI says it had a plan for the economy, the more it appears there was no plan. The situation would be comical if not for the seriousness of what awaits us economically in the next few months. The next finance minister faces troubled waters ahead – the least of which would be the fear that his/her plug could be pulled any time. As rumours and speculations dotted the day on Thursday, Asad Umar’s statement that more ministers would fall seemed to be coming true with reports coming in – at the time this editorial is being written – that other ministers had also been ‘asked to resign’.