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Learning from the skipper


April 21, 2019

Changing portfolios of a few ministers, excusing a minister to leave the cabinet when he did not accept the offered portfolio, not offering any portfolios to two ministers, and inducting a few new ministers in the cabinet may be quite rare decisions to be made by a prime minister of Pakistan.

However, decisions like changing field positions, changing the batting order, declaring a batsman to send a new man in, giving bowling over to a non-regular bowler and dropping a player from the team are the type of decisions that any cricket captain must make during the game.

One should not forget that Premier Khan is applying in politics what he learnt on the cricket field. After the major reshuffle of his cabinet (team) on Thursday, he reminded that his skipper instinct is very much intact, and he would use this instinct while playing the most challenging innings of his life.

Before commenting on the most talked about change in the cabinet – the position of the finance minister – let us have a look at the composition of the federal cabinet. Starting from Shahzad Arbab to Barrister Shahzad Akbar, there more than a dozen technocrats serving in the cabinet. The induction of Dr Zafar Ullah Mirza, Hafeez Sheikh, and Nadeem Babar has further increased the number of technocrats in the cabinet.

Many are saying that the pre-election rumours of a technocratic government are getting materialized in a different format under a democratically elected government. However, I have a different perspective on this.

Until Election 2018, the PTI was being considered as a party of the “educated, urban middle class”. Till then, Imran Khan resisted the need to have electables in the party. However, the ground realities of electoral politics compelled him to offer a significant number of party tickets, for Election 2018, to electables – ignoring many of his old party workers. By inducting a significant number of technocrats and subject specialists in his cabinet, he has sent a clear message that, while he needed electables to win the elections, he is not dependent on them to run his government.

Now let us discuss the change of guard at the Ministry of Finance. I mentioned some of the external and internal factors affecting state of economy of Pakistan in my last piece (‘An overdue stitch for the economy’, April 9, 2019) for these pages. I have no hesitation in saying that, under the given circumstances, no other finance minister or any other political party would have done anything different than what Asad Umar did in his eight-month stint.

Addressing the chronic issues facing Pakistan’s economy required unpopular decisions which had to hit the ruling party’s political capital. Asad’s corrective measures to address issues like the energy circular debt, overvalued currency, curbing imports, and reducing expenditures did improve external imbalances. On all of these counts, he did what was in the best interests of the country and for this he should not be punished. He never got a chance to present his own budget (the two minibudgets were mid-course corrections to the PML-N’s sixth budget). Nor has the IMF programme been concluded yet. Hence, the benchmark for assessing Asad’s performance as finance minister is not very objective.

If the PM was not happy with Asad over the depreciation of the value of the rupee, increase in energy tariffs proportional to increased prices of oil and gas in international markets, increase in duties of non-essential imports, withdrawal of non-targeted subsidies, and reduction in the discretionary expenditures (the PSDP is the only discretionary expense; the rest of the three – debt repayment, defence, and salaries/pensions for day to day administration – are non-discretionary expenditures) etc, then he will not be very impressed with Dr Hafeez Sheikh’s performance either. Knowing Hafeez’s professional credentials, I am sure he would not let the economy bleed through further accumulation of energy circular debt, a flawed exchange rate policy or fiscal mismanagement.

If the PM was not very happy with Asad for the latter’s inability to manage the perception and sentiments of both the people and the markets, then the challenge for Dr Sheikh would be to successfully manage perception, of not only the general public and the media, but also of his own colleagues in the cabinet. He would have to sensitize all of them about the need for monetary tightening, currency adjustment, and the pros and cons of going to the IMF.

The absence of an effective communication strategy to inform the people of the PTI’s proposed measures to insulate the lower and lower-middle-income segments of society from the aftershocks of macroeconomic adjustments also fuelled the sentiments against the PTI’s economic policies.

What is required from Dr Sheikh is to build not only a plan of action but a narrative on economic reforms. The plan and the narrative should clearly explain the objectives to be achieved on the economic front over a specific time period, and how the side-effects of macro-economic adjustments would be managed at the micro level through effective social safety nets and targeted subsides.

PM Khan has hinted that he would keep on changing the batting order of his team members as per their performance. This is a welcome move which was much needed in our politics. It will keep the cabinet members on their toes, and they will strive to deliver their best. However, the captain needs to ensure that excellent players in his team don’t end up focusing on their individual games only. His job is to control ‘dressing-room politics’ so that the players of his team can form a winning combination and deliver collectively. I hope PM Khan continues to learn from Skipper Khan, and doesn’t let dressing-room politics affect his team’s performance.

The writer heads the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. Twitter: @abidsuler