Three things Asad Umar failed at that cost him his job

He didn't have a robust plan, didn't partake in the politics of the job and ultimately lost the prime minister's trust.
Published April 25, 2019

He came, he saw, but he was unable to conquer. Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf's (PTI) opening batsman, the promised messiah who would cure all that ails the sick man of South Asia, is out of the picture after just eight months.

As the dust settles following the cabinet reshuffle, the dream of a Naya Pakistan, where the economy breaks free from the straitjacket of vested interests, lies dead and buried.

Before discussing what went wrong, a brief explainer: Pakistan’s finance ministers are more accounting ministers than finance ministers, for their job is to simply balance the books without rocking the boat too much. The nature of the country's political economy is such that the man in charge — and it usually is a man — must curtail deficits while protecting the purses of the powers that be, both civilian and military.

What adds further complexity is that the finance minister (in name only) does not have a strong political foundation to stand on and is given this position mostly because he has the trust of the prime minister or non-democratic forces, both domestic and international.

Failure on three fronts

To succeed in this environment, the first thing the finance minister must have is clarity of purpose and an acute awareness of Pakistan’s political economy. This is especially true when the minister belongs to a party that has promised to bring about a Naya Pakistan and has had years to prepare for the job.

The minister must develop a strategy based on accurately assessing what is and is not possible given the composition of interest groups within one’s own party, the demands that will be made by others who supported the party’s rise to power, and the overall terms and conditions that are likely to be imposed by international financial institutions that always play a key role bailing out an economy hemorrhaging foreign reserves.

The second key to success is the minister's ability to anticipate and blunt the political maneuverings of those who may be opposed to his vision and strategy. In a crisis-like environment, he must push through policies that will hurt the status quo's beneficiaries who have brought the ruling party to power and who are unlikely to keep quiet as the finance minister goes about his business.

Finally, the minister needs to maintain the complete and unwavering trust of the person who has put him in charge: the prime minister. It is this trust that shields the finance minister from vested interests, both within and outside the government.

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Even a perception of mistrust or distance opens the doors for others to whisper in the prime minister's ears — and once there is an opening, it does not take long before the relationship weakens and collapses. When push comes to shove, the prime minister has to stand up and support, both in public and in private, the policies being enacted by his finance minister.

Asad Umar fell short at all three of the above: he did not have a robust plan ready for execution, he did not partake in the politics of the job, and he ultimately lost the prime minister's trust.

The coming economic crisis was being talked about as early as 2017, meaning that Umar had at least a year-and-a-half to prepare. During that period, he should have devised a short- and medium-term economic framework, educated Imran Khan and the core PTI team about what had to be done as soon as they came to power, and developed a strategic communications plan to engage with Pakistanis who would have to bear short-term pain as the economic stabilisation measures were taken.

Governments around the world, especially democratically elected ones, make their boldest and toughest economic decisions in the first six months. This honeymoon period gives them the cushion to make choices that will be unpopular at first but will pay dividends by the time the next election comes.

The PTI did not have such a plan, which meant that it wasted time and political capital as the finance minister deliberated what to do about the economy.

Umar, in his own words, was not interested in the politics of his job — he said this himself at his last press conference. This gave his opponents room to plot against him. The whispers within and outside the party grew, with new rumours of his ouster emerging with every passing week.

A strained relationship

The relationship between Khan and Umar began to decline almost immediately after the PTI took office.

As the shadow finance minister, Umar had not prepared Khan for what lay ahead, and this was evident from the latter's simplistic rhetoric on the campaign trail about how the economy could be fixed.

This meant that Khan had to make one about-face after another after winning the elections, starting with the decision to go hat in hand and seek financial assistance from allies like Saudi Arabia. This would have surely caused some strain between Umar and Khan, as the latter had vowed not to go abroad and "beg" for money.

That the relationship was not going well was also evident when the rupee depreciated. Umar informed the public that the government was aware of the State Bank’s decision; Khan told journalists that he did not know of the move.

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Another u-turn that Khan had to make was around the tax amnesty scheme. A vocal opponent of tax amnesties during his time in the opposition, Khan was now convinced by his financial team, led by Umar, that the PTI government had to offer another such concession to the elites.

Trade and industry associations began going directly to the prime minister with their demands, something that further eroded Khan’s confidence in Umar.

As the International Monetary Fund (IMF) negotiations dragged on and economic indicators worsened, something had to give, and Umar’s opponents, both inside and outside the PTI, sharpened their knives.

The trip to Washington was the final nail in the coffin. Umar’s failure to make progress, as well as a reported snub from the US Secretary of the Treasury and the IMF's managing director, sealed his fate.

Masters of the balancing act

Ishaq Dar and Miftah Ismail’s time as finance minister stands in stark contrast to Umar’s brief stint at the helm of the economy.

Both Dar and Ismail had a plan and stuck to it: Dar had to balance the books and create fiscal space for Nawaz Sharif's big public infrastructure projects, including major investments in power production; Ismail had to prepare the economy for a soft landing while priming the developmental pump ahead of elections.

They were also reasonably adept at playing politics, using their own networks within the ruling party, as well as their proximity to the prime minister, to blunt their opponents' maneuverings while showing flexibility in the give and take that is common in Pakistan’s political economy.

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And finally, they had the prime minister's complete trust (Sharif trusted Dar almost to a fault) which gave them immense operating space despite the many constraints all finance ministers face.

This does not mean that the previous two finance ministers before Umar did not play a role in enabling the current economic crisis; I have written numerous critiques of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz's economic policies. The purpose here is to show why they were more successful than Umar at holding on to their jobs and executing their party's economic vision.

The PTI leadership may want to learn from them, lest they repeat the same mistakes, leading to a further deterioration of Pakistan's economy.

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