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Difficult days ahead, says Asad

April 19, 2019


Asad Umar at his last press conference as the finance minister on Thursday.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star
Asad Umar at his last press conference as the finance minister on Thursday.—Tanveer Shahzad / White Star

ISLAMABAD: On a day of dramatic developments, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government’s most prized minister and the one who Imran Khan had long held out as the man most suited to fix the economy took to Twitter on Thursday to announce that he would be stepping down from the post.

Finance Minister Asad Umar then followed up with a hurriedly called news conference to “personally explain” the situation. For the first time in his eight-month tenure he sat alone on stage to speak to the media in the auditorium of the Federal Board of Revenue.

He warned of difficult days ahead saying “tough decisions need to be taken” and insisted that delay was not necessarily bad when time was used to soften the negotiating position of the other party. He was referring to allegations that his delay in approaching the International Monetary Fund has cost the economy dearly. “The position taken by the IMF today is much softer compared to the position they put in front of us when we first went to them,” he claimed.

Mr Umar said his resignation would not affect talks with the IMF for a bailout package that he only recently claimed was near finalisation. According to him, the IMF mission is all set to visit Pakistan later this month as planned.

Soon after his farewell news conference, Mr Umar briefly went to his office where he was conveyed a message of Prime Minister Imran Khan to attend a consultative session along with some cabinet colleagues, but he declined saying he was no longer a cabinet member. He collected a few belongings and was seen off by his personal staff.

About a possible reason for his removal, Mr Umar said perhaps the country was passing through a difficult phase and the opposition was building pressure on the prime minister in the garb of inflation and so on that might defuse with a new team in place. “The new team will come and it will look at things with fresh eyes, maybe they will come up with better decisions and either way, they will need to be given time,” he added.

He disagreed that he was resigning as a protest and said he had not joined the party with a condition for a portfolio. “The next finance minister will be competent, pious and hardworking,” he said when asked about his successor. “Do you think I missed these qualities?”

Wearing a dejected look, though managing to smile on a few occasions, Mr Umar appeared confident even in defeat. He told journalists that he was first informed by the prime minister about the cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday night, when Mr Khan first told him he should take the energy ministry. “But I convinced him that I should better step down from the cabinet,” he said, adding: “This does not mean I am not available to take forward PTI’s vision for Naya Pakistan.”

The request to step down from his ministry was apparently a shock to Mr Umar who had joined the party on the persuasion of Prime Minister Khan himself and who only two days ago had rubbished reports about his removal from the federal cabinet. When asked about media reports on his return from talks with the IMF on a bailout package on Monday, Mr Umar had haughtily quoted a verse from the poetry of Mirza Ghalib, hazaron khvahishen aisi ki har khvahish pe dam nikle (Thousands of desires, each worth dying for...).

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry had also strongly refuted media reports that circulated for days about the cabinet reshuffle, saying no portfolio of any minister was being changed and “all such news regarding any such change are concocted”. He said the country was passing through a critical juncture and these unfounded reports were against the national interest.

Ramsha Jahangir
Ramsha Jahangir

Mr Umar, who presented two supplementary finance bills in his eight months in office, was unable to formulate and announce a budget for a full fiscal year as he finally succumbed to long circulating rumours about his sacking. He recalled joining the PTI on April 18, 2012 — exactly seven years ago — and enjoyed an amazing journey with many ups and downs but was satisfied that whatever efforts he made were for the betterment of the country and the nation.

Responding to various questions about internal party conspiracies and desires of the military establishment for his removal, Mr Umar said he did not know and was never interested in knowing such things and remained focused on his duties even though people had been telling him many things.

The former finance minister said people had different opinions about the condition of the economy when he took over but he believed those were very difficult moments and weaknesses would have plunged the national economy into a canyon. He said the state of the economy had improved since and numbers appeared good. But this did not mean all was great and the next finance minister would have to pass through tough times.

The situation may not be as difficult as earlier and he wished his successor would get full support a finance minister deserved in taking difficult decision to put to revival an economy full of great potential, otherwise it could fall again into a ravine. “Whoever comes next will have to stand taking difficult decisions, honey and milk will not start flowing in two-four months,” he said in apparent reference to criticism that economic conditions had not improved in the last eight months.

At the same time, Mr Umar agreed that the timing of his removal was not very good and believed his replacement would be made immediately because “we are about to go to the IMF and the next budget will reflect the IMF programme. This is already too late; the next person should have come in earlier, at least a month ago”.

The former finance minister said he always believed the business community and capital market could be source of coming to power but the actual responsibility of a finance minister was the 210 million people of Pakistan and he was ready to brave a couple of months of market uncertainty over crushing the majority of the people. “I always said I would not crush the people and delayed the IMF programme and improved its conditions with a lot of hard work.”

Mr Umar agreed that the stock exchange would rebound the next day when a journalist asked if those against him were behind the continuous slide in index. He said three deficits — budget deficit, current account deficit and investment to saving gap — were the key challenges and any success or failure was measured on these indicators.

Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2019