All that huffing and puffing

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s refrain to questions about performance has been that it takes time to clean up the kind of mess left by the last two parties in power

Behind him, the fervent desk-thumpers of his party, and to his right, empty opposition benches.

In his second speech on the floor of the National Assembly in a week, Prime Minister Imran Khan was a man on the offensive, rousing the party base. This was the Imran Khan his followers had been missing, the one at rallies and atop containers, roaring against the corrupt and corruption, weaving dreams of a glorious future borrowed from a distant past. It didn’t matter if the opposition had staged a walkout, “I don’t mind them because they don’t matter,” he said to his delighted devotees on the treasury benches. Meanwhile, stage left, PTI outsiders Fakhar Imam and Zubeida Jalal looked like they were about to fall asleep.

He took a particular kick out of twisting the knife into acting leader of the opposition Khawaja Asif for his “liberal” credentials, mocking Bilawal Bhutto’s rise to his party’s chairmanship. He thundered against the “mafias and cartels”.

The speech was the climax to a tumultuous week of missteps by the government, a stormy budget session, fulminating backbenchers, brooding allies and — sensing the wind — an opposition on the attack. The PTI parliamentarians were airing their grievances on the floor of the House and on the media. Members of the National Assembly removed from the corridors of power often have much to grumble about, and the budget session is the ideal time to extract concessions. But when a cabinet member strays from the party line, it feels like more than a storm in a teacup. PTI’s refrain to questions about performance and governance has been that it takes time to clean up the kind of mess left by the last two parties in power.

Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry was no longer having any of it. When journalist Suhail Warraich asked the canny politician from Jhelum why the PTI had been unable to perform, he said it was because of the tussles among the second-tier leadership of the party. He stopped short of accusing the prime minister of being unable to manage the rivalries or the many crises that have erupted one after the other – sugar, wheat, petrol, pilots’ ‘bogus’ licences. Fawad Chaudhry is answerable to his constituents, as are others who are elected and catch the word on the street back in the constituency.

He has been, among others, vocal about Imran Khan being surrounded by unelected advisers and technocrats who have no need, by law, to declare their assets, no stake in the democratic system, and thus no need to be answerable. They are a perfect shield from the consequences of poor governance.

Adviser for Commerce Abdur Razzaq Dawood, for example, has refused to come on the media to explain his role in the sugar price crisis of 2019-2020. As chairman of the sugar advisory board, he was responsible for ensuring that exports do not lead to a price hike. Dawood’s position is that the government needed the foreign exchange and that since sufficient stocks were available, exporting those need not have led to a price hike. The Sugar Inquiry Commission Report disagrees. It says exports were a factor in the escalation in prices, and that the board should have banned them on time to “give a clear message to the market about the seriousness of the government to intervene and control the prices”.

While nobody in the government owns up to the inability to manage the various cogs in the wheel involved in the sugar pricing scam, the PTI government happily – and rightfully – takes credit for commissioning the inquiry and making the report public.

The inquiry was commissioned essentially to find out why sugar prices rose astronomically and who benefited from it. Yet, no one in the PTI ranks who was questioned by the commission is willing to shoulder the blame. When the commission asked a senior Punjab official why the decision to grant the subsidy was made, he replied in Punjabi, “Mein immature si.” (I was immature).

The Punjab chief minister did not remember the meeting in which the subsidy was granted. Neither could anyone explain why the subsidy was calculated at 2017-2018 prices, cost of production and exchange rates. There is worse: the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) decided on December 4, 2018, to give the provinces free rein to pay subsidies. The minutes to a provincial cabinet meeting later that month say the subsidy was approved “in the light of verbal information on decisions of the ECC”. In other words, no one knows what exactly was said since it is not on official records.

Central to the issue are decisions made by the ECC headed by the then finance minister, Asad Umar. On October 2, the ECC allowed the export of sugar without any freight or financial support to millers or exporters, either by the federal or provincial governments. A month later, the Pakistan Sugar Mills Association (PSMA) and the Kissan Ittehad (KI) met Adviser on Commerce Abdul Razzaq Dawood and the then food security minister, Khusro Bakhtiyar. Bakhtiyar’s family is knee deep in the sugar mills business. Both groups asked that conditions for exports should be relaxed and that the provinces asked to pay freight support - a subsidy on transport. A summary following the meeting said that the freight subsidy was “not justified”.

But on December 4, the ECC decided that, based on varying procurement prices fixed by provincial governments, the provinces could make their own decisions about calculating and paying the subsidy. The only province to do so was the Punjab, which based the decision on “verbal information”.

Asad Umar appeared before the commission and was asked what had happened between October and December: the ECC first decided against a subsidy and then directed the provinces to set the amount. He said that it had been “informally” decided that subsidies were a provincial subject after the 18th Amendment. The commission asked him why the second ECC decision “did not reflect this”. He maintained that support prices for farm produce vary in the provinces.

The commission was not convinced, finding the reasoning implausible based on the minor differences in the cost of procurement between Sindh and the Punjab; nor was the 18th Amendment argument “reflected in the subsequent decision” made by the ECC. Umar was asked in April 2019 to resign as finance minister. During last year’s budget session, he called for an investigation into the abnormally high rise in sugar prices.

This year Prime Minister Imran Khan, talking about the cartels and mafias, asked: “The sugar mill mafia, who is in it? Asif Zardari has sugar mills, Nawaz Sharif has sugar mills.” None of the Sharif or Zardari clans were in the House that day. Behind him though, sat a key minister and political ally, Khusro Bakhtiyar. The prime minister did not mention Moonis Elahi or Jehangir Tareen.

The omissions are clearly deliberate and political. This is reflected in accountability czar Shahzad Akbar’s press conferences who has waxed lyrical about the illegal business practices of Suleman Sharif’s mills and Shahid Khaqan Abbassi’s 20 billion rupee subsidy warranting investigation and action but has been silent on Jehangir Tareen who has been prominently mentioned in the report.

Akbar is spot on about influential political families expanding their sugar mills in the 1990s while being in government, hinting at subsidies and exports to India. Meanwhile in the 2000s, despite a ban on increasing crushing capacity, three units of JDW Sugar Mills increased their crushing capacity by an amount almost equal to the capacity of the largest sugar mill in the country. This happened during the moratorium on establishing new sugar mills and increasing crushing capacity to protect the cultivation of cotton.

The government has also decided to send the issue of the establishment of sugar mills since 1985 and subsidies to the NAB. A source close to the sugar investigation says this is a red herring: according to the Companies Act 2017, Section 220 (5), companies are not required to keep books of accounts for more than 10 years.

The sugar crisis, the report, its unveiling and subsequent criminal cases are a big test for the PTI. So far the good has been undone by the bluster and political expediency. Governance is a not a political campaign.

The writer is a multimedia journalist and host of the show Sawaal with Amber. She tweets at    @AmberRShamsi

All that huffing and puffing: PTI's reasons to not answer about performance