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April 25, 2019

The words they speak


April 25, 2019

The cabinet reshuffle has receded as a news story but remains a hot topic, good enough to cause a bout of histrionics by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. The media may be on to sensing something new, maybe bigger, like a showdown in Punjab or a move to the presidential system, reportedly going through incubation. Do remember that some of the news that is denied may turn out to be true subsequently. The media loves to fast forward, leaving little to imagination. So stay tuned!

The changes made in the federal cabinet had nonetheless included the mother of U-turns because one of the four pillars of the ruling party, Asad Umar, fell only days after brushing aside reports about his removal as finance minister. It was the kind of stuff oriental tales are made of. The ruling edifice in Islamabad began to shake suddenly. Something on the grapevine turned into breaking news. And something touching the surreal happened in the process.

Umar, basking in the glow of his high-profile visit to Washington, appeared as the sole guest on a prime-time talk show devoted to Pakistan’s economy. The former minister for finance was as usual full of confidence as he explained how the economy would come out of its present difficulties and pick up halfway through the PTI’s term. As the interview progressed, one couldn’t help marveling at the minister’s exuberance when the IMF bailout package had not been concluded. One particular remark about the need for NAB to stop harassing big business might have gone too far for some. How could the finance minister spend an entire hour on a show with the economic indicators blinking red? It was later known that Umar had accepted more such appearances on television for the days to follow.

In reality, that proved to be his last interview as finance minister because soon after the talk show, Umar was reportedly informed by the prime minister that his cabinet portfolio would be changed. It is somewhat astonishing that the outgoing finance minister declined the offer. Never slam a door you may want to re-enter later, they say, but Umar did the exact opposite.

The party will no doubt be poorer without Umar’s optimism and the Kaptaan is likely to accept him back in some role that is unclear at this stage. Meanwhile, the outgoing finance minister might like to thank the party leader for relieving him of a ‘mission impossible’.

PM Khan’s new “batting order” was greeted with less praise and more questions. It needs to be understood that by replacing the finance minister, Khan had bowed to the urgency of course correction, to respond to a chorus of discontent about the diminishing economy of a country of 210 million people.

The choice of new finance adviser may not be popular but Khan could not have found a better replacement than Hafeez Shaikh, a technocrat with solid credentials and expertise in international economic negotiations. However, questions are being raised about his margin of manoeuvre as policy choices are limited. The government’s low performance in 200 days may have less to do with fiscal measures and more about its incapacity in motivating domestic and foreign investors.

The appointment of Brig Ijaz Shah as interior minister too may be part of course correction in so far as the arrangement of the PM keeping the interior portfolio had not worked out. It is vital to successfully tackle the problems of security, particularly when the country is facing horrendous acts of terrorism, perpetrated by our enemies through their proxies.

The Modi government, having failed in its acts of open warfare after Pulwama, has stepped up subversive actions with Balochistan as prime target. The interior ministry, in conjunction with the security agencies, will be tested in fulfilling the task of overcoming the security threats.

If PM Khan’s decision to reassign the information minister was welcomed by the party’s cadres, his selection of Firdaus Ashiq Awan has left them befuddled. Some see her arrival as a change of tactic to soften the government’s interface with the press.

All told, PM Khan has taken steps to reduce his team’s megabytes. He too should consider following the proverb that the word you have not spoken is your slave and the word you have spoken is your master. The latest example being that of his idea of importing the revolution from next door!

The opposition has been quick to claim that the cabinet reshuffle was an admission of the government’s failure. The fact is that the government has accepted that things were not going in the right direction and some changes were required. If the changes were not too early, these may not be too late either as the 2019-20 budget is under preparation. Similarly, the perennial problem of the National Action Plan’s implementation needs to be attended, to ensure that

Pakistan is not moved to the FATF’s black list.

Terror networks have regularly found ways of evading restrictions on their activities, by assuming new names. The civil and military leadership is increasingly on the same page about the need to disable the jihadi outfits. Whether they concur on the methodology of doing that is another matter. The question of reintegrating the extremists in the normal life remains unresolved. Efforts to mainstream them as political parties have further complicated matters.

The next three months represent the greatest challenge to the Kaptaan’s premiership. He has accepted the role of technocrats in key ministries but the question being raised is whether they would be able to deliver better. Political office-holders always receive technical and bureaucratic inputs as well as a set of options to chart the course of governance. Is the PTI leadership willing to introspect and identify the errors that might have been made in the first eight months to drive down investment and economic activity in general? A great narrative will not pass the threshold of success without sound judgment.

The Kaptaan’s new team may possess greater technical expertise but it remains to be seen if it has the savoir-faire to infuse confidence and turn around the business sentiment.

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