ISLAMABAD: A number of officials in the finance ministry and some top members of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) believe that reasons behind the removal of Asad Umar as finance minister were “political” rather than economic policies.
Justifying this view, they said only a few days back the prime minister had praised Mr Umar for his efforts in lowering the scale of adjustments demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the proposed bailout package.
The sources said that Mr Umar, who was once considered a close confidant of the prime minister, had received the news of his removal with a “high surprise” as he was not expecting such a move days after his “successful” visit to Washington in connection with the negotiations with the IMF.
‘Interest groups’ played a key role in changing PM’s perception, says a cabinet member; aide to premier denies political motive for the removal
“We have almost agreed to the basic framework agreement with top IMF officials,” a source privy to these developments said.
Mr Umar was celebrating with fellow cabinet members his success over getting the much harsher conditions of the IMF package changed, but was not aware that the prime minister had another plan for him, the source added.
The change in the ministerial slot was a big surprise even for the top IMF officials in Washington, the source said.
A source said the decision also came as a surprise for many of Mr Umar’s associates as they were aware of Mr Khan’s reported statement that he considered the former finance minister as his deputy prime minister.
Conversations with senior officials of the finance ministry and a few cabinet members, who have direct knowledge of Mr Umar’s ouster, provided various reasons behind the sudden decision of the PM.
They believed that Mr Khan was under immense pressure due to a campaign launched by opposition parties against the government over the issues of price hikes and increase in the prices of gas and electricity, in addition to an unprecedented devaluation of the Pakistani rupee against the US dollar.
“The prime minister thought that the change in portfolio of Asad Umar will lessen the criticism from opposition and the media,” said one of the cabinet members on condition of anonymity. He said the premier did not expect that “his close confidant” would refuse to accept another ministry.
The minister was of the opinion that the PM was perturbed over media reports and discussions by economists in TV talk shows challenging the government’s claims about improvements in the economy.
Another federal minister said the prime minister was least interested in matters related to the economy before coming to power as his main focus was on the improvement of education, health and climate change.
However, the minister said, Mr Khan after coming to power had to deal with economic issues and, in order to keep himself updated, had started consultations with other economists some of whom had also been associated with past governments. The prime minister had started to believe these economists when they pointed out flaws in the policies which were being pursued by the PTI government, he added.
The campaign by some of the “interest groups” against Mr Umar also played a major role in changing Mr Khan’s perception about the abilities of his finance minister.
The interest groups of three sectors were persistent in seeking his removal from the portfolio of finance.
Those involved in the sugar business were also continually criticising Mr Umar for opposing a subsidy on sugar.
Similarly, a group of powerful bankers was also unhappy with some of his decisions regarding regulation of banking services.
The third group, which was all out against Mr Umar, comprised real estate tycoons who were against the introduction of market-based valuation rates for taxation in the provinces of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
“An understanding was reached on this issue with the revenue ministers of the three provinces,” the cabinet minister said, adding the decision was to be announced in the budget.
“Since representatives of all these interest groups always remain present in power corridors, they also played a key role in making the prime minister realise that Asad Umar was not the right choice for this key cabinet position,” said a senior party leader who is close to the ex-minister.
Govt denies political motive
When contacted, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Media Affairs Yousaf Baig Mirza said he was present in almost all the top meetings and, therefore, could say that “political situation” had nothing to do with Mr Umar’s removal. He also denied involvement of any pressure group in the decision, saying that he was not aware of the presence of any pressure group.
Mr Mirza said the reason for bringing changes in his cabinet had already been cited by the PM the very next day when addressing a public gathering he had declared that those who would not be beneficial for the country would have no place in the cabinet.
Mr Mirza said that since the prime minister had himself given the reason for changes he had made in the cabinet, therefore, he did not want to add anything further.
Addressing a public gathering in Kalaya, the headquarters of Orakzai tribal district a day after shuffling his cabinet, the prime minister had stated that the only objective in his mind was the nation’s uplift, adding: “I want to tell all the ministers that anyone of no use to the country will be replaced with one who is beneficial.”
Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2019