Mindboggling shake-up

Published: April 20, 2019
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The writer served as executive editor of The Express Tribune from 2009 to 2014

The writer served as executive editor of The Express Tribune from 2009 to 2014

Eight months is too short a period to judge the performance of a newly elected government. More so if the new government is headed by a party that has never seen or worked our bureaucratic system from inside.

Even more so, if the party is headed by someone who has never walked the labyrinth that is called the Government. And it would, indeed, be extremely unfair to judge the performance of this government’s finance minister, Umar, who has not completed even one full year looking after the demanding portfolio. Normally a new government’s performance starts getting judged after about 18 or even 24 months in the job.

But Asad Umar, the Finance minister (as of the writing of this piece) was not allowed to complete even nine months in the job. This does not mean that one is pleading with the PM to let Asad continue in the job. This is his prerogative. But the PM is not known to discard his favourites so soon.

Asad was his blue blooded favourite. Remember Mansur Akhtar? He was perhaps the most consistent failure in Imran’s eleven. But Kaptan continued to have this favourite cricketer of his included in the national team no matter how many times he failed. We saw the last of him only after the 1987 World Cup.

The federal budget is almost around the corner. An IMF Programme is seemingly in the last stages of being finalised. The FATF sword of Damocles is still hanging over our heads and uncertainty would last until September 2019.

To discard the finance minister at such a juncture appears to be a decision not one that could be regarded as a well-thought out and astute one. What is more mindboggling is the fact that Asad Umar walked into the finance portfolio seamlessly after the elections because he was touted all through the several months leading to the 2018 elections as the economic wizard, the financial guru of the PTI by Imran Khan himself.

In fact, Asad is supposed to have drafted the PTI’s economic agenda and also said to have written the economic part of party’s election manifesto.

Politicians come and go but bureaucracy constitutes the permanent government that then makes up the system. Only those politicians who have worked this system for some time do know how to handle the permanent government, that is how to make it work in accordance with the elected government’s political agenda. This bureaucracy is very good at making rings around novices. That is perhaps what has actually happened.

Perhaps, being too new to the system the PM should have filled his first cabinet with experienced people like foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.

And to let Asad learn the ropes first, he could have been given the minister of state for finance portfolio and some experienced technocrat with government experience the federal finance portfolio, as Razzak Daud the adviser on commerce who has experience of government as he was in Musharraf’s cabinet.

The PPP when it first came to power in 1972, too, was an outsider, but Prime Minister ZA Bhutto was an insider. He knew the system and had worked it. When Benazir Bhutto came to power in 1988 heading the PPP which had remained in wilderness for over ten years, she kept the finance portfolio in her hand but a technocrat of the calibre of Wasim Jaffery was appointed as her adviser on finance.

Asad’s successor, Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, is more of a technocrat than a politician. He holds a doctorate in Economics from Boston University and had been finance minister of Sindh (2000-2002), federal minister of privatisation (2003-2006), adviser on finance (2010).

He joined the PPP in 2012 and was elected Senator the same year. During his association with first the government of Musharraf and then that of president Zardari, his performance was not all that scintillating.

So, his choice in place of Asad Umar appears more intriguing because one is not sure if he has ever met PM Imran Khan, which makes one wonder if he was, indeed, the PM’s choice for this important portfolio and that too at such a crucial moment in the PTI’s tenure.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 20th, 2019.

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