There can’t be two opinions that Dr Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, the Prime Minister’s adviser on Finance and Revenue, has the toughest task to accomplish among all the government ministers.
Last Friday, Dr Shaikh appeared on the Express News for its newly launched show “The Review” to answer some of the tough questions regarding the government’s handling of the economic challenge. This was his first interview with any private TV channel since he was given the huge responsibility of turning around the economy in a manner that Pakistan comes out of the vicious boom and bust cycle. Dr Shaikh has remained part of the economic teams of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf and then the PPP government. Therefore, Pakistan is not a new territory for him. It is also one of the reasons that sceptics are unsure if the Harvard graduate can deliver on the promises the PTI made during the election campaign since he couldn’t do much during his previous stints.
The PTI’s narrative is straightforward. It holds the PPP and PML-N governments from 2008 to 2018 responsible for the current economic mess. Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly said both these parties plundered the national wealth, leaving the country’s economy in dire straits. Hence, the government said it had to take some tough decisions to arrest the slide. The record devaluation of the rupee against the dollar, increase in interest rates, and curtailing imports are some of those decisions which the government argued were necessary. These measures, Dr Shaikh admitted, have caused hardships for the common man. But he emphasised that the government will take all difficult decisions to rectify the country’s economy. The de facto finance minister said all these steps were aimed at addressing Pakistan’s chronic economic woes in a manner that the country is put on the path towards sustainable economic growth.
While the Prime Minister may have laid the entire blame on the PML-N and the PPP, his finance adviser pointed to a much larger issues that have held back Pakistan’s economic growth. Without naming anyone or singling out any government, Dr Shaikh said political instability and Pakistan’s failure to develop strong economic and trade ties with other countries are the two main reasons behind Pakistan not achieving a sustainable economic growth rate. His prognosis is absolutely right but contrary to PTI’s narrative that all ills of Pakistan’s economy are due to the “corruption” of PPP and PML-N.
Many may have reservations about the role of Dr Shaikh or his capacity to deal with the current economic challenge, but if the PTI is to really turn around Pakistan, it has to pay heed to his advice of working on political stability and focusing on trade and economic ties with other countries. On political stability, the PTI government has to revisit its current confrontational approach towards opposition parties. The recent outburst of Prime Minister Imran questioning the illness of three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif has further strengthened the perception that he is still standing on the container. If Nawaz’s medical reports were doctored, who should be held accountable for this? Certainly, it was Imran Khan who himself acknowledged that the PML-N leader was critically ill and his government won’t create any hurdles if he wanted to go abroad for treatment.
The second suggestion of Dr Shaikh is related to Pakistan’s economic and trade ties with other countries. Our current exports are just around $23 billion, which shows the volume of our failure to develop strong economic and trade ties with the outside world.
Imran Khan has promised to transform Pakistan. But all his reforms are linked with the economic turnaround. And that turnaround is not possible as long as he remains hostage to his flawed narrative.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 25th, 2019.