What can deliver, what can’t

Updated 12 Jan 2019


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

AFTER the recent gas shortages across the country, the prime minister sacked the heads of the two distribution companies possibly in an attempt to appear in charge.

However, is such arbitrary sacking of senior officials accepted as a sign of a decisive person in charge — ie the prime minister — exercising executive authority? When you read an analysis of the decision such as the one in this newspaper’s leader on Friday, you form the opposite view.

A few lines from the editorial in a reminder of what it said:

Government officials and ministers can have no excuse for talking up a doomsday scenario and then blaming the media for causing panic.

“On the face of it, assigning blame to the MDs of the gas distribution companies appears odd, given that they are not responsible for the production of gas or for its import. Besides, they neither draw up the merit order list nor do they decide how the pace of the expansion of gas demand is to be regulated. Their role is simply to run the gas distribution system. If there is a shortage of gas in the system, or if there is a technical outage at some point that is going to constrict the supply of gas, this information is available to authorities in the federal government in real time.

“At least four officials in Islamabad, with offices very close to each other — the secretaries for power and petroleum as well as the ministers of these respective divisions — have in their offices screens displaying real-time data on how much gas is in the system, how the fields are functioning, how the distribution system is operating, and so on.

“With all this readily available information, it is difficult to comprehend how blame was assigned to the very last link in the gas supply chain: the heads of the two distribution companies.”

This is a pertinent question. One can be assured there will be no honest answer apart from the one we suspect which, too, will remain unsaid: the need to do something drastic to take notice of the countrywide gas shortage. This was hardly the right thing to do.

The PTI government knows that it enjoys the full support of powerful state institutions and, therefore, it should feel no need to succumb to the temptation of such misplaced gestures and optics which can only demoralise professionals in key positions. It has the room to make mistakes, learn from them and carry on.

There are hints aplenty that the bureaucracy is now treading extremely cautiously, shying away from making decisions, having seen how some of the senior civil servants in the last government are being made to pay for both acts of omission and commission and even uncommitted sins.

The only answer to critics and to all the tentative cogs that make up the government is sure-footed decision-making. Only this creates an order where it is not the fear of recriminations but the pride in making the right decisions for the country’s sake that is the primary motivating factor.

The fiasco of the appointment, or let’s say non-appointment, of the federal government’s spokesman on economy and energy has been discussed in these pages as elsewhere, particularly social media, exhaustively so it needn’t be dwelt upon again but it remains a case in point.

And then, of course, there is the concern regarding the economy that was fuelled by PTI cabinet members when, on coming to power, they started painting a gloomy picture. If they are still in the opposition at least in psychological terms, they should rethink their ways.

Government members and ministers privy to all facts and figures can have no excuse for talking up a doomsday scenario and then blaming the media for running away with stories that caused panic among the people and in the markets.

From devaluation to the deficit, we have had a cacophony of ministerial voices saying contradictory things at different points over the past five months of the PTI government, and while it is easy to blame the media, there has been no attempt to speak with one credible voice on the economy.

From social media to TV talk shows, there is a dozen or so PTI senior members seemingly assigned to represent the government’s point of view but, despite talking a lot, they have disappointingly, for the government, not said much — at least in terms of offering a concrete defence of the government’s position in key areas where it is being subjected to questions and remains at the centre of concerns regarding the economy. What the government may consider is to prepare daily talking points or fact sheets with vital facts and figures that all ministers may use.

One can be sure Imran Khan is a central authority figure in his party and all his senior members and ministers gravitate towards him and are keen to toe his line. The clarity that is so far missing is in what that line may be in vital areas such as the economy and energy to name just two.

Over the medium to long term the government will sink or soar on the strength of its governance, the vision of its policy architects and the competence of its managers. As long as it has the support of state institutions it has no fear of being destabilised like some of the past governments.

Therefore, it is incumbent on it to focus on the way forward. Equally, it needs to clearly spell out its vision to the people. Only this can promote a widespread buy-in and generate confidence about the future.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2019