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Khan’s eight-month itch

Updated April 23, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IT was a happening week. All thanks to the prime minister who finally put aside his indecision and shuffled the cabinet portfolios, as he had been meaning to do for some time.

Indeed, most of the bigger changes that were announced last week had already been dominating the Islamabad chatter.

Ghulam Sarwar Khan’s inability to handle petroleum was an open secret and so was his departure from the ministry; Fawad Chaudhry’s Twitter fight with Naeemul Haq and then his open admission that he had expressed his reservations about the information ministry to the prime minister had sealed his fate, say his own colleagues. The Pakistan-India crisis simply put a pin in the matter.

And let’s be honest, the finance portfolio had been in the eye of the storm since day one. The PTI helped keep it in the news initially by constantly referring to the economic mess it inherited. By the time the party realised it was a wee lost about how to tackle the mess, everyone else caught on and kept it in the headlines. For the past some days, there were leaks galore about Khan’s ‘worries’ and ‘unhappiness’ with the handling of the economy. The ‘other’ quarters had been concerned about the economic handling for much longer, it seems.

The timing, however, remains unexplained.

The PM hangs on to his time-honoured habit of making decisions abruptly with little thought for the consequences.

At the same time, the shuffle does reflect that power has not tempered the prime minister’s app­roach. He hangs on to his time-honoured habit of making decisions abruptly with little thought for the consequences or whether or not it would be seemly. (Remember the PTI’s decision to backtrack on the choice of caretaker Punjab chief minister prior to the election?) In other words, as long as the PTI is in power, there is a chance we will continue to see abrupt and sudden decisions, including reshuffles in the cabinet.

This particular reshuffle has led to wholesale mourning over the induction of technocrats in the cabinet. However, Khan’s original choice of cabinet had also revealed his discomfort and distrust of politicians — a trait he shares with Nawaz Sharif — and belief in technocrats. Eight months ago, he had allocated relatively uncritical ministries to those he had to accommodate due to politics (defence to Pervez Khattak, foreign affairs to Shah Mehmood Qureshi, for example) and formed a number of taskforces to deal with reform. He is also perhaps the first party head to make elected parliamentarians give up their seats for governorships, indicating that he was willing to risk his thin majority over giving cabinet portfolios to key supporters.

It was only in the critical areas of the economy that he brought in an elected parliamentarian who was a technocrat-turned-politician. Asad Umar’s departure will perhaps strengthen the tendency in our political system to trust technocrats with the economy, instead of training politicians for this job. The PPP appointed five different ministers in its tenure and the PML-N too has no clear cut candidate since Ishaq Dar’s departure. And the latter’s hold over this portfolio had more to do with his relationship with Nawaz Sharif than his ability. The rest of the PML-N leadership may have extensive experience but this will only ensure a slot in the cabinet, and not a specific portfolio, for them.

Can this also allow one to argue that economic policy means little to our politics and parties? This is why Ishaq Dar could be the PPP’s finance minister; the party later appointed Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, who has now replaced Umar under the PTI. Aside from the rumours about those who brought him in, it shows that Khan or the PTI don’t have any clear views on economic policy either.

Khan cares about battling corruption, reforming education and health, as well as providing more for the less vulnerable sections of society, but he doesn’t care how the money for this is found. Had Umar been able to do it, well and good. If not, then Hafeez Shaikh and a committee of bankers and accountants led by Jahangir Tareen would be given a chance. At best, Khan wants to ‘fix’ the economy, but he is willing to leave the details to the experts.

Last but not least, the reshuffle reveals the difference between traditional politicians and the ‘others’. Apart from Umar (not a traditional constituency politician despite having won two elections) who has retired ‘hurt’, the rest have quietly swallowed the change of portfolios. For a constituency politician knows the importance of access to power and also understands that highs and lows are part of the game.

This is also why Sarwar settled for a demotion. This is why in the past (and even now), Shah Mehmood Qureshi has quietly accepted Khan’s snubs (when he criticised Tareen for attending meetings, Imran Khan released a statement saying it was his right to decide who attended meetings publicly contradicting his foreign minister) and carries on.

Constituency politicians understand the importance of being close to the leadership, and that, with time, closed doors might just open again. Just a few months ago, Tareen and his camp had been sidelined in the government, but with the passage of time, he has once again emerged as a key player. Umar should rethink his decision to distance himself from the seat of power, lest the PTI ticket for Islamabad is awarded elsewhere the next time around.

Postscript: The reshuffle also shows the importance of the media for Khan. The information ministry was one of the first about which it was said that change was imminent.

Apart from Chaudhry’s own reservations about the restructuring in the ministry, Khan is said to be worried about the criticism of his government.

The issue is often discussed at meetings; it is the reason for the rapidly expanding team of media advisers and spokespersons.

A number of names did the rounds, including Babar Awan’s, before Firdous Ashiq Awan’s announcement. And while the new adviser might be able to smooth ruffled feathers, she cannot create the idyllic ‘narrative’ Khan (or any political leader) desires.

This problem will remain till political leaders learn that media management is not the same as control.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2019