IT is a good idea, but perhaps its time has not come as yet. With a new session of the National Assembly set to begin, Prime Minister Imran Khan convened the federal cabinet for a marathon session of ministerial performance audits. The performance of more than two dozen ministries was assessed, and it was indicated that another quarterly review will be undertaken before yet another cabinet reshuffle around the six-month mark. That slightly longer horizon is perhaps more reasonable than demanding that ministers show the desired results in their first three months in office. Not much is known about what the yardsticks were and how Mr Khan assessed his cabinet colleagues, but a review as vast as 26 ministries in a single day will inevitably be superficial. Perhaps the prime minister intended to signal to the public that he is a different kind of prime minister, and to his cabinet colleagues that ‘business as usual’ will not be tolerated. On both counts, a clearer picture should emerge in three months’ time. What Mr Khan ought to be aware of is that other governments have attempted to introduce some discipline and systematic accountability to the functioning of the cabinet, but none succeeded.
In the previous PML-N government, first Nawaz Sharif and then Shahid Khaqan Abbasi made a show, at least initially, of demanding more from their cabinets. Mr Sharif also announced performance audits of ministers after the first year of his last spell as prime minister, but the fanfare quickly died down, and he did not shuffle his cabinet until his ouster from office. And while Mr Abbasi held cabinet meetings regularly and adopted a more inclusive approach towards decision-making, there were few tangible gains when it came to ministerial accountability. Indeed, the most high profile departure from Mr Abbasi’s cabinet — that of then finance minister Ishaq Dar — was a result of pressure from NAB and the courts. Certainly, Mr Abbasi’s tenure was marked by deep national political turmoil and the threat of imprisonment of Mr Sharif, but true cabinet accountability is very difficult to enforce in most circumstances.
Prime Minister Khan may also want to consider the effect of drawing further attention and work away from parliament. The very start of a new session of the National Assembly on Monday was rendered uncertain by the marathon cabinet meeting that the prime minister was holding. With parliamentary committees yet to be formed, the presence of ministers in parliament is even more important than usual, if parliament is to have even a semblance of oversight activity. Mr Khan’s cabinet selections are his prerogative, but the government’s performance needs to be examined in parliament too. The prime minister is the chief executive, but parliament ought to be the focal point of democratic activity.
Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2018