The stone in the shoe

Published March 28, 2024
The writer is a business and economy journalist.
The writer is a business and economy journalist.

IT has not even been a month since the new government was sworn in and important cracks in its otherwise powerful edifice are already beginning to show. Last week, for example, the prime minister had to announce the composition of some important cabinet committees, and within a day, make changes to the list.

One of these was the Cabinet Committee on Privatisation (CCoP), and the other was the crucial Economic Coordination Committee (ECC). This is not just some bureaucratic wrangling. These are vital decision-making centres, especially considering that the areas they will be dealing with have direct bearing on the successor IMF programme.

In the first draft, the prime minister appointed himself the chair of the ECC, but then a day later issued a new notification appointing the finance minister instead. The position is usually held by the finance minister so it was only natural that questions arose when the prime minister appointed himself in that seat.

For most people the answer was simple. The PML-N wants to keep as much of executive decision-making authority inside the family as is possible. Mr Ishaq Dar, the foreign minister, has surprisingly been appointed to chair the CCoP, which has historically been chaired by the finance minister.

Today, the ghosts of the past are rising up to haunt the country all over again.

In at least one instance, that of the ECC, the decision was reversed quickly but some damage had already been done. What everyone feared — that the new government will lack a strong centre for economic decision-making — had been stoked. What went into the reversal of this decision is not a matter of public record, but it is not difficult to guess that Finance Minister Muhammad Aurangzeb would have had to mount an effort in persuasion to get the prime minister to reverse his own decision.

But it doesn’t end there. As time goes on, we will likely see more and more such actions designed to keep Aurangzeb in a tight box. People are wondering whether his experience will be much different from that of Miftah Ismail, who found himself being second-guessed and criticised by his own party colleagues, most notably Ishaq Dar. Is that history set to repeat itself? Signs are increasingly appearing that would suggest that, yes, it is.

But it doesn’t end there. The new government appears on the surface to be one of the strongest Pakistan has ever had, with a two-third majority in parliament and full backing from the powerful establishment, including the army as evidenced from the central role the Special Investment Facilitation Council is already playing in crucial decisions, a body that has the army chief represented on it alongside the prime minister.

With such powerful legs to stand on, within and outside parliament, the government should be exuding confidence and a crisp sense of direction. To some extent this is happening, as evidenced in the speed with which the PIA structuring transaction is advancing. But in other areas, reversals such as the one on the composition of the ECC, inspire anything but confidence, especially when they show a desire to side-line the newly minted finance minister before he has even begun working in earnest.

Beyond the economic decision-making, the government is increasingly finding itself consumed by the scale of the score-settling that the system is now pregnant with. This is important because it affects the quality of the decisions the leadership will be able to make as things move forward under this set-up. It turns out that the country is not really made of Lego after all, and building it in one shape, then dismantling it only to rebuild it in another, is not as straightforward a task as it would be for a child playing with the construction toy. Yesterday’s bad guys cannot become today’s good guys, and vice versa, without leaving some scars; above all, some questions are raised that erode the legitimacy of the entire edifice.

Today, the ghosts of the past are rising up to haunt the country all over again. Both the opposition PTI and the ruling PML-N are hobbled by this. The PML-N has to run the country and navigate tough economic times ahead, while the PTI has to swat away questions about its ‘same page’ days. Without closure on these crucial questions, the state of affairs at the top will remain unsettled, ghosts from the past will continue to haunt, and decision-making will remain hostage to political considerations.

This is how it works in every government that has a stone in its shoe, whether it is a military dictatorship, or a ‘same page’ champion. And it permeates every corner of decision-making, from the ability of the government to undertake the deeper structural reforms, to its ability to maintain macroeconomic stability. The stone in the shoe aggravates dissension within the ranks of the ruling coalition, and creates pressure on the rulers to deliver quick feel-good results to the populace.

If it does not reckon with the stone in its shoe, this government will find it very difficult to walk the path of adjustment that will be laid out for it in the successor Fund programme. At that point, attempts to snatch more decision-making powers out of the hands of Finance Minister Aurangzeb, will gather momentum. Pressure will mount to switch out of adjustment towards growth instead, and the inability to do this will be seen as the failure of the new man in the building.

A small glimpse of this was already seen last week with the committee composition. The ghosts of the past were seen coming out of the woodwork at the start of this week, with the letter from the six judges of the Islamabad High Court. The stone in the shoe is now starting to do its work, and despite the powerful legs the government is standing on, it can still induce a limp in its stride. And the game has only just begun.

The writer is a business and economy journalist.

khurram.husain@gmail.com

X: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, March 28th, 2024

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