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A humble beginning

Updated September 03, 2018

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IF the take-off of a new political government is any indication of the long haul, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) measured start in its first two weeks in office almost borders on indecision.

This is particularly true in the economic field, although the government completed the process of forming the governments at the centre and in the provinces within a reasonable period.

A couple of meetings of the federal cabinet have rolled out almost half a dozen task forces to delve into repercussions of issues ahead as a first little step instead of taking an upfront decision to fix them. These committees would look into reforms in key areas such as austerity, restructuring of the government, civil service reforms, corruption and the creation of a new province.

The government has to create its own image by taking actions before its goodwill and political capital start fading

What will the government do while it waits for the reports of the task forces? Seek sectoral and ministerial briefings? Perhaps that is why Imran Khan had to finally request impatient critics to examine his performance after three months or his first 100 days in office. This request came as he took the heat over certain unsavoury actions by some public office holders under his leadership.

He was quick to decline a request from the cabinet division to personally head the economic coordination committee (ECC) of the cabinet, but did not decide whether or not to lead the three other committees of the cabinet on restructuring, privatisation, energy and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Instead, he appointed his Finance Minister Asad Umar as chairman of the ECC, which has 12 other members — six of whom are yet to be appointed. This has some of the few experienced technocrats of General Pervez Musharraf’s government such as Razzak Dawood, Dr Ishrat Husain and Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed.

Other members of the ECC would include minister for law and justice Farogh Naseem, petroleum minister Ghulam Sarwar and planning and development minister Khusro Bakhtiar.

The decisions of the finance minister-led ECC would, therefore, always need be endorsed by the federal cabinet for legal cover. In addition, six more ministers — communications, national food security, power, privatisation, statistics and water resources — will also become members of the ECC whenever they are appointed.

But the outcome of the first meeting of the ECC of the Cabinet was not promising. It deferred a decision on the most difficult political item on the agenda: whether or not to increase the natural gas tariff after almost five years. It formed two committees on three power sector-related matters and took no formal decision.

The new government has to get over this hesitance. The markets are waiting and watching. The government has to create its own image by taking actions before its goodwill and political capital starts fading.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has so far avoided the most crucial decision the country’s economic situation requires at the earliest — engaging with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). An early engagement is a sign of shared understanding of the challenges and inclusive decision making.

A bit of a comparison with the predecessors may be of some help. The 2013 general elections were held on May 11 and the prime minister was sworn in on June 4, as per the Constitution’s requirements; followed by the federal cabinet being sworn in on June 7.

Within the next week, the former government announced the federal budget on June 12. It was able to conclude an IMF bailout programme over the following 10 weeks.

In contrast, this time the prime minister took the oath of office on Aug 18 after the elections on July 25, and formed the cabinet within two days. There are no signs yet of where the cabinet is headed as it completes its second week. That practically means that the state remains in a cycle of uncertainty for almost the fifth month running.

The first decision of public importance so far has been the full implementation of the recommendations of the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority for reduction in the prices of major petroleum products.

On the other hand, Prime Minister Imran Khan maintained the tradition of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif by appointing a grade-21 officer as his principal secretary, to whom more than five dozen grade-22 officers of the federal and provincial governments would have to report.

This style of seniors compelled to work under a junior officer sets an unsuitable precedent for meritocracy to take roots.

On top of that, Prime Minister Khan also followed the footsteps of the PPP and the PML-N by appointing an officer of the District Management Group (DMG) as head of such a specialised agency as the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR).

Despite being good officers like the new incumbent, the service delivery and performance of all DMGs as heads of the FBR has always been found wanting. The government also did not stick to its commitment of separating the roles of revenue policy and administration and assigned both functions to the FBR chairman.

He was greeted on arrival by a display of black-strips by officers of income tax and welcomed by customs’ officers. The exchange that followed showed that the FBR may again see an environment of stiff confrontation and tension in the days ahead.

The new chairman of the FBR has demanded two critical presentations over the next few days: how to replace the existing system of annual confidential reports based on likes and dislikes with an objective evaluation system for promotions, and how to ensure merit-based posting.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, September 3rd, 2018