After passing the finance bill, the National Assembly is now rushing through approval for expenditures by various ministries, beyond the amount allocated in the previous budget. The opposition did try to block the passage of some demands, forcing the finance minister to take the mike to defend these expenses, but he behaved like a real technocrat.
Instead of clearly stating the compulsions to justify the excess expenditure, the arrogant economist in Sheikh often sounded like a sadistic teacher. With a taunting grin, the finance minister focused his speech on reprimanding the critical legislators for not being able to fathom the expenditures in an appropriate context. The manner in which Sheikh delivered his speech often reminded me of Dr Mehbubul Haq.
Indeed the late doctor was a brilliant economist. He also had an awe-inspiring capacity to juggle with figures for spinning feel-good stories. This instilled a suicidal kind of arrogance in him.
Eventually, most legislators ganged up against him and disregarding the solid support Haq used to relish from the Zia-led junta and the donors’ community, even a lie-low type like Muhammad Khan Junejo had to remove him from the finance ministry in 1986.
Even after presenting the second budget, Hafeez Sheikh is yet not able to convey the philosophy, if there is any, behind the Zardari-Gilani government’s economic policy. This compounds the general feeling that Sheikh is but a glorious babu, deputed to manage Pakistan’s economy on behalf of the World Bank/IMF combine. He has yet to discover that an elected government draws its legitimacy and strength from treasury members.
Getting approval for the budget this year could have created a huge embarrassment for the government, when not the opposition, but at least 35 ruling party members joined hands to resist the imposition of GST on agricultural inputs.
In the end, President Zardari had to summon the agitating legislators to his office. They were given a long lecture on the hard facts that force Pakistan to embrace ‘the IMF narrative.’ No wonder, whispers predicting the appointment of a ‘political face’ to head the finance ministry are growing louder. Sheikh Sahib can continue to provide the government with ‘intellectual input’ as the minister for planning. Although, a reliable source claimed that while Sheikh accepted the portfolio, he bluntly told President Zardari that he would only work as the finance minister and would want out if he were offered any other ministry in a cabinet reshuffle.
Chaudhary Ahmed Mukhtar can but wait. At best, we can see him moving to the ministry of water and power, if an anxiously negotiated deal with our Chinese friends for radically addressing the mess of circular debt is finalised. Otherwise, no one expects a major cabinet reshuffle, as usually happens after the passage of a budget in a parliamentary democracy.
Sources affiliated with the Prime Minister’s office would also not deny reports that Hina Rabbani Khar may be promoted as a full-fledged foreign minister. Although an unassuming and lie-low type, Khar was spotted by the press gallery as an assiduous note-taker after making it to the National Assembly for the first time in 2002. Soon afterwards, she was made the state minister for economic affairs and went on a number of foreign junkets under the patronage of a self-proclaimed deliverer of economic ‘miracles,’ Shaukat Aziz. Her supporters strongly believe that her experience, spanning almost a decade, at the ministry of economic affairs, has made her comfortably familiar with international affairs. It is time she is allowed to employ the experience she has accumulated to shine as the first woman foreign minister of Pakistan. If nothing else, it may at least boast a ‘soft image’ for Pakistan. Most people claimed the President was certainly interested to have a woman foreign minister, but preferred Dr Fehmida Mirza, the incumbent Speaker, for the job. It was generally presumed that after joining the ruling coalition, Chaudhary Pervaiz Elahi would prefer to be elected as the Speaker, to savour the protocol-driven halo of this office. I now have it from credible sources that Dr Mirza was just not interested in the foreign ministry, facilitating Yousaf Raza Gilani to lobby successfully for upward mobility for Khar.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 24th, 2011.