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April 1, 2021

PM had avoided making changes during price-hike, fuel, LNG crises

National

April 1, 2021

ISLAMABAD: When the Senate election for the Islamabad seat was held, there was not even a slight indication from the government hierarchy that Dr Hafeez Sheikh would soon be shown the door.

In fact, Prime Minister Imran Khan had personally lobbied hard for his success. He even held a rare interaction with members of the National Assembly (MNAs) belonging to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and its coalition partners. There was hardly any MNA that Imran Khan had not met during those sessions. The prime minister worked hard to get Hafeez Sheikh elected as senator, suggesting that until recently, he wanted him to continue as the finance minister.

When Hafeez Sheikh left the position of the advisor in consequence of a judgment of the Islamabad High Court, he was sworn in as the finance minister so that he could carry on for another six months without being elected as senator.

What drove Imran Khan in the 18 days between March 12 and March 30 to force him to send Hafeez Sheikh packing unceremoniously? Was Hafeez Sheikh going to be retained as the finance minister had he won the Senate slot? No cogent reason has been advanced by any government spokesman or cabinet minister for his abrupt ouster from office. Most spokespersons have projected the line that he was sent home because he failed to control the price hike and inflation.

However, other factors – such as the stringent and controversial steps that the government has taken leading to heavy taxation entailing a greater price hike, and the excessive independence granted to the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) making it an uncrowned ‘king’ to get a $500m tranche from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) -- have been cited as the principal reasons behind Hafeez Sheikh’s dismissal. But there is obviously more to it that will become clearer with the passage of time.

If former PML-N minister Zubair Khan is to be believed, it is not the finance minister but the SBP governor who is actually responsible for the price hike, and Hafeez Sheikh is merely a scapegoat.

Hafeez Sheikh has always been persuaded by successive governments to return to Pakistan from abroad to improve the health of the national economy, which has perpetually been in a crisis. But never before has he been removed in such an unceremonious manner. As the finance minister in the past, he always saw through the tenure of the government – whether military or civilian—that he served. This is the first time that he has been shunted out only halfway through a government’s tenure. He is now unlikely to stay in Pakistan after his recovery from the Covid-19 infection that he contracted some days ago. In the past, he always left the country on the completion of his cabinet assignment.

Hafeez Sheikh never responded to the lethal criticism against him by the opposition, specifically the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Muhammad Zubair during the canvassing for the Senate seat. More than once, former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi demanded that the finance minister’s name should be placed on the Exit Control List so that he can’t leave the country and continued to remain in Pakistan. The case of Nadeem Babar is not too different. The prime minister stood his ground despite the severe criticism on both Sheikh and Babar from the opposition and media demanding their removal. Babar was always accused of having a conflict of interest as his line of business is linked to the petroleum industry which comes under the ministry he headed. It has now been officially stated that Babar has been dispensed with so that he cannot influence the investigation into the oil and LNG import fiasco. There was no earlier punitive action from Imran Khan and his aides who kept defending Hafeez Sheikh and Nadeem Babar when the opposition and others were denouncing the two for the price hike, damage to the economy and the oil and LNG scams which cost the public and public kitty heavily.

Although directly elected, Asad Umar was essentially a technocrat and the poster boy of the PTI. It was decided much before the PTI came to power that he would ultimately preside over the finance ministry. But despite Hafeez Sheikh’s abrupt ouster, Asad Umar has not been brought back to finance. Hammad Azhar, who is a thoroughbred politician, has been preferred instead. However, the task given to him is a formidable one for an inexperienced young man.

Hammad Azhar is the son of Mian Muhammad Azhar, who was the first president of the king’s party – the PML-Q – after it was carved out of the PML-N by Pervez Musharraf. The Chaudhrys of Gujrat soon outsmarted him and took over the PML-Q. Unlike his son, Mian Azhar has always been a man of few words.

In the 2002 general elections held during Musharraf’s tenure, Mian Azhar was a strong candidate for the slot of prime minister, but he faced defeat from both the seats he contested in Lahore and Sheikhpura. Without a parliamentary seat, he was replaced by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain as the PML-Q president. He also failed to win a seat in the 2008 elections. He later joined the PTI.

Earlier, Mian Azhar remained associated with the Sharif family for many decades. During the Sharifs’ governments, he held different senior government positions before finally falling out with them. He was the Governor of Punjab in 1990-1992. He also served as the mayor of Lahore between 1987 and 1991.

He was awarded the National Assembly ticket for NA-95 Lahore when the seat was vacated by Nawaz Sharif after the 1988 polls. He won the election as a candidate of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad. In 1990, after the dismissal of Benazir Bhutto's first government, he replaced Gen (retd) Tikka Khan as the Punjab governor. He, however, left the position due to differences with the Sharifs. In the 1997 elections, he was elected as an MNA on the PML-N ticket from NA-92 Lahore. His relations with the Sharifs got gradually more bitter and ultimately after the dismissal of Nawaz Sharif's government in 1999, he became the head of the PML-Q.