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A technocratic solution?

Updated April 24, 2019

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The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE change may have been in the offing for some time, but still the abruptness of it was disconcerting. The cabinet shake-up within eight months of coming to power indicates that a serious problem has beset the PTI government. The sacking of a few ministers and reshuffling cabinet positions is not likely to stem the rot. Now a hapless prime minister is seeking a technocratic solution to his predicament. Can it work?

Nothing could be more bizarre than the decision to sack the country’s finance minister in the middle of critical negotiations with the IMF and just weeks before the announcement of the annual budget. Asad Umar may have his shortcomings, but he cannot be held solely responsible for the chaos in economic policy. The prime minister must accept part of the blame for the drift too.

It was extremely humiliating for a leading member of government and the party to be shown the door in this manner. The news about his imminent exit was already out when Asad Umar was still in Washington negotiating a bailout package with the IMF. Hours before the notification, he sounded secure about his position. Surely he had been in the eye of the storm for quite some time and had also faced criticism for his handling of the economy within the party. Yet, few expected the axe to fall in this way.

Greater reliance on technocrats in a parliamentary form of government weakens the political process.

Then there is also the question about the other factors influencing the shake-up. Curiously, the rumours about the change suddenly gained currency after the reported interaction of a group of media persons with the top military leadership. The security establishment appears increasingly concerned about the financial crisis. A floundering PTI government has allowed it to further expand its space. Its shadow is now perceptible over a wider political spectrum.

There may not be any doubt about the competence of Hafeez Sheikh, but his choice as the new economic czar reinforces the perception of the growing role of the establishment in policy matters. Hafeez Sheikh’s name came from nowhere at the last moment. It seems that even senior PTI leaders were not in the loop.

A former finance minister in the last PPP government who had also been an important member of the Musharraf government, Sheikh was never known to have any association even remotely with the PTI. It’s no more a secret that his induction in the PPP government also came on the recommendation of the then security leadership. Even though he is very much an experienced hand and an able economist, the challenges he will be facing are daunting.

Whether or not the new economic adviser will be able to deliver depends largely on the political will of the PTI government. One cannot expect miracles to happen with a weak political leadership unable to take tough decisions and effectively implement much-needed structural reforms. Moreover, for economic reform to work, there is also a need for the government to build political consensus. It needs more than just putting a competent economist at the helm.

It is apparent that Sheikh’s appointment is part of a move by the prime minister to rely more on technocrats to run the government. Besides finance, some other key ministries are headed by non-elected advisers now, including commerce, health and information. Surely technocrats are important as they bring in expertise where it is lacking, but the responsibility of policy formulation cannot be left with the non-elected technocrats.

No policy can be successful if it is not based on ground and political realities. Greater reliance on technocrats in a parliamentary form of government weakens the political process. The idea of technocrats delivering good governance is a myth and has repeatedly been proved wrong. As the PTI government relies more on non-elected technocrats, the party has become weaker.

Restructuring the cabinet is indeed part of a normal political process. Ministers who do not perform ought to be sent home, but arbitrary decisions can also have a demoralising effect on the party and government. The manner in which the changes have been made has certainly not reinforced the confidence of the party in the leadership. Some of the new appointments are extremely controversial.

While Sheikh’s appointment was a surprise, perhaps Khan’s most controversial move is the elevation of retired Brig Ijaz Shah as the new interior minister, a portfolio that was earlier held by the prime minister himself. A former Intelligence Bureau chief, Shah now holds one of the most powerful positions in the federal cabinet. The move has reinforced the perception that Khan’s government represents Musharraf’s legacy.

The induction in the cabinet of such relics of the past prompts an important question, and one that negates Khan’s promises to break with the status quo and introduce a new generation of leaders. At this point, the PTI government looks no different from previous governments. The fact that there’s still more of the old than the new has further dented the PTI’s claim of being a party of change.

Disarray and widening divisions in the party are more palpable post cabinet shake-up. The speculation about a change of guard in Punjab and KP has intensified the jostling among various groups and factions within the party. Khan’s recent warning to the provincial chief ministers to get their act together is viewed as a signal for change. But continued indecisiveness has added to the prevailing uncertainty, further affecting governance in the provinces.

Most worrisome is the ruling party’s weakening hold in parliament. The PTI’s inability to effectively defend the government in the face of an increasingly aggressive opposition has been badly exposed in recent sessions. It was an embarrassing situation for the ruling party when Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari launched a blistering attack on the government and the prime minister in the current National Assembly session. There was no one from the front benches to counter the criticism.

What the prime minister will not understand is that merely turning to technocrats may not deliver. More than new faces, the government needs a clear direction and a vision for change.

The writer is an author and journalist.
zhussain100@yahoo.com
Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2019