A government in disarray

May 25, 2019

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

WHAT is happening in Islamabad is a question on many minds but nobody seems confident enough to even hazard a guess.

It is quite clear that as worries about the economy deepen and the entire top finance team is changed with a number of old, if not ancient, faces being brought back to the helm, the ship seems no steadier than it was. Experts talk of structural changes and reform — which will be painful in the extreme particularly to the most vulnerable — as being inevitable and a bitter pill that has to be swallowed if years of malaise resulting in mounting debt and deficit are to be corrected.

While the prime minister is keen on being seen as the man in charge, every day evidence emerges to the contrary as the roots of each new appointment to important decision-making positions fills one with a sense of déjà-vu.

While the prime minister is keen on being seen as the man in charge, evidence is emerging to the contrary.

What may have been dismissed as nothing more than usual opposition criticism on the inclusion of some known figures from the Musharraf period in the PTI government at the start of its tenure is now appearing to be a fairly valid observation. The obvious implication is that among those who are being placed now in key finance positions are some to whom many of the country’s economic ills can be traced. No point going into names but look for yourselves and you will find relics of both the Musharraf and PPP eras.

One whose appointment as chairman of the Board of Investment was touted as being synonymous with an event that would open the floodgates of direct foreign investment in the country is no more in office. I don’t know Haroon Sharif at all but his ‘resignation’ was greeted with horror by several knowledgeable people. Perhaps, it was this horror and criticism at his exit that prompted one of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s top aides to defend the decision in a TV interview.

Jahangir Khan Tareen, the man disqualified by the Supreme Court from holding public office for misdeclaration of assets and not speaking the truth, appeared on TV and claimed that the BoI chief was sacked and did not resign. Mr Tareen also said anyone not delivering would be changed by ‘the decisive’ prime minister. He may not have named Asad Umar but it was clear that he was implying that the finance minister’s sacking had been on similar grounds.

JKT, as he is known on social media, also rubbished the Malaysia-style solution to place all non-performing state enterprises in an entity together as attempts are made to resuscitate the near-dead ones and improve the ones that are struggling.

This solution was at the centre of Asad Umar’s proposal for dealing with sick or non-performing state-owned companies from Pakistan Steel to PIA where various governments have sunk billions to little effect. JKT said the new team would come up with its own plan soon.

This spin was aimed at showing a prime minister fully in charge — and Jahangir Tareen (disqualified or not) as having the former’s ear and being at the heart of PTI decision-making. It may work in the short term but will do little to lessen the extreme pain many of the vulnerable are already feeling.

With a dramatically depreciating rupee, most likely under IMF diktat, triggering inflation unseen in recent years, a rise of one and half per cent in the interest rate to over 12pc, may check the downslide somewhat but will also have other undesirable consequences.

The obvious is that the cost of borrowing for business has now been pushed higher. It isn’t clear how great an impact this will have on export-oriented industry, wanting to fund excess capacity (and create new jobs in the process) necessitated by a spurt in exports because of the cheap rupee.

The opposition seems ready to jump into the fray and make the most of the anger which will be on the rise in the streets as inflation and fewer jobs combine to squeeze some of the poorest people in the country. Let’s see if the main counter-measures, such as the Benazir Income Support Programme (which delivers a cash subsidy directly to the most needy sections of the population, can cushion the impact of a contracting economy and near-double digit inflation.

In the weeks after Eid, a clearer picture will emerge about the opposition’s plans to put the government on the defensive and even go for toppling it, if that at all is a possibility, and how those at the helm in Islamabad deal with any such threat.

What is abundantly clear as we speak is that the opposition, with its back to the wall via a dubious accountability process as it sees it, is working hard to change the status quo and regain the initiative. The party in power is showing signs, no matter how faint, of nerves.

Why else would the prime minister, as he addressed a fund-raiser of his Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital, have described the opposition leadership gathered for a strategy meeting over Iftar as a congregation of ‘shaitaan’ — Satan to rapturous applause by his donors and supporters.

The use of such language was indeed in bad taste, particularly when used by a country’s chief executive for its main opposition leaders. All one can say is that he reacted thus as he was feeling the pressure of the coming together of most of his political opponents in one place.

Even then, one can be certain that given the crucial backing of key state institutions that the prime minister has enjoyed so far, the government is under no imminent threat from the opposition, unless, of course, the latter can demonstrate it has some new, lethal arrows in its quiver.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2019