Pakistan upbeat on trade with India
Former Pakistan's finance minister, Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, delivers remarks regarding foreign policy at Brookings Institute on the economic future of his country April 18, 2012, in Washington, DC. — Photo by AFP

ISLAMABAD: Former finance minister Dr Abdul Hafeez Shaikh has been staying put in Islamabad for the past 15 days — perhaps his longest stay at a stretch in the capital in more than three years — but avoiding public appearance and declining to meet media persons or to receive their calls.

This has led credence to rumours that he has set his sights on the job of caretaker prime minister.

“He is interacting only with the right people these days, precisely those who matter in putting together a caretaker team and, of course, a couple of close friends,” said a regular visitor to House 102 on Hillside Road in Islamabad’s E-7 Sector.

He was the choice of a ‘big house’ outside Islamabad in the first place for the office of caretaker prime minister and was subsequently to get the blessings of the PPP leadership, one of his close friends told Dawn, adding that President Asif Ali Zardari was expected to have final consultations in Karachi over the weekend and formally nominate in a few days Mr Shaikh as coalition partners’ top candidate for the post.

He said the Senate seat vacated by Mr Shaikh was expected to be given to Dr Qayyum Soomro, a close associate of President Zardari.

In reply to a question, he said Mr Shaikh had not held any meeting at his residence with former finance minister Ishaq Dar of the PML-N in recent days, but the two enjoyed good relationship and might have seen each other somewhere else. He has gone out of the house a few times — to the Presidency and perhaps to Rawalpindi — but did not take his staff along.

Dr Shaikh has been avoiding media personnel since his resignation as finance minister on Feb 19 and is not responding to telephone calls.

“He is 110 per cent sure about becoming the caretaker prime minister,” Mr Shaikh’s friend said. “Even if he is not nominated by the major political parties with consensus, he will ultimately be acceptable to the two main parties.” But he did not elaborate how the former finance minister would cross obstacles like opposition from the PML-N and other parties.

There will perhaps be a major gap between the wishes of Mr Shaikh and his supporters on the one hand and ground realities on the other.

However, he explained why he considered Mr Shaikh’s nomination as prime minister to be important. The kind of challenges Pakistan faced today required someone who had an up-to-date knowledge of the economic and fiscal crises and enjoyed credibility and reputation with international lending agencies in order to oversee a reform process acceptable to major parties.

A newcomer will take weeks and months of briefings and presentations to understand ground realities and take difficult decisions.

“Mr Hafeez will be better placed to strike a deal with lending agencies, particularly the International Monetary Fund, for balance of payment support” at a time when the foreign exchange reserves held by the State Bank had dropped to a critical $8 billion mark and estimated by the government to further deplete to a little over $5 billion by the next fiscal year, a source said.

A team of the lending agency had made it clear during its last visit to Islamabad in January that it would not support a bailout programme for Pakistan without “broadest and deepest” political support for upfront economic reforms and policy changes.

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