MOEED PIRZADA – Supporters of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan were perturbed on seeing an uneasy, almost broken body language of their leader. It was the third week of April; he was emerging on television screens, from Iran speaking in a joint press conference after his meeting with the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani. Imran Khan, usually very articulate, was struggling with his words, at times even fumbling, he sounded under pressure and looked confused. An international observer could have easily concluded that Iran’s visit was stressful, given Pakistan’s delicate balancing act between its GCC partners, the United States and a Tehran battling under sanctions. However, Khan’s admirers back home knew instantly it was not because of tensions with or around Iran, it was all related to the politics back home, that is getting more and more uncertain after merely eight months of PTI forming government in the center, Punjab and KP.
In the last week of April, Dawn, Pakistan’s most influential paper, carried a front-page story claiming that removal of finance minister, Asad Umar, was on political grounds and not economic. The influential paper cited sources inside the ministry of finance and the ruling party that argued that PM had often referred to his finance minister as his Deputy Prime minister and had congratulated him for latter’s successful talks with IMF during the semi-annual retreat of monetary institutions (World Bank and IMF) in the first week of April. PM had credited Asad for obtaining much softer conditions from IMF for a bailout package.
Talks between IMF and Pakistan had broken down in November 2018 for what Asad Umar, and those close to him, had described as harsh conditions that among other implications would have also depreciated Pakistani Rupee to 182 against US dollar. To this day no one fully understands why Imran Khan suddenly sacked Asad Umar. There is no dearth of PTI leaders, opposition politicians, bankers, businessmen and media pundits who supported Asad’s sacking and argued that Khan’s opening batsman had mismanaged economy – yet the final impression that prevails is that PM was forced to take that decision under pressure from power centers outside his control. His replacement with Dr. Hafeez Sheikh – considered close to Washington only served to consolidate that impression that PM was forced to change course. Dawn’s story in the last week of April had thus a glaring weakness: it claimed as a scoop what most already knew or believed in Islamabad.
New Economic Strategy or Political Course Correction?
Prime Ministers do change their cabinets. There is nothing extraordinary about a reshuffle; however large it may be. Had Asad not refused to accept any other portfolio then it probably would not have created the kind of political jolt which it did. But, other ministers, who were changed, were being judged against a simpler yardstick of performance; did they work hard to deliver? In the case of Asad Umar, it was a matter of political philosophy. Though his critics were merciless; they blamed him for not being an economist, called him a failed corporate leader, a mere marketing executive and even described him as arrogant and someone who could not understand the complexity of Pakistani economy and politics.
However, most of the time this criticism zoomed into a narrow area: he did not cut a deal with IMF early on in October or November. Some have also blamed him for not continuing the import and consumption-driven growth model of Ishaq Dar. However, to any objective observer, it was apparent that Asad Umar was never alone in that process of decision making. Many in Pakistan’s foreign office, institutional setup, and strategic community were worried that IMF conditions would impinge upon country’s national security, CPEC and its relations with China. Imran Khan had repeatedly taken a position against IMF loans; he kept on attacking Nawaz and Zardari for accepting IMF loans and conditions, he repeated all these pledges in his first detailed speech to the nation in August as Prime Minister it sounded nationalist, and his followers were pleased.
Khan had imagined that his sincere appeals to the diasporas would stream in billions of dollars- he thought that public’s belief in his personal honesty would double or treble the tax receipts, he was expecting greater help from China and the Muslim world. But, before what is now called “Khashoggi Affair” Saudis were telling PM Khan to approach IMF, and in the GCC’s peculiar power matrix UAE only follows Saudi thinking. So much had been said and written in Pakistan on CPEC as a “game changer” that most in public believed it to be a panacea for all problems.
Many in Islamabad thought that the “Iron brother” across the Himalayas would create an IMF style package to bail out its most trusted ally that has opened up its land to connect Chinese economy to the Indian ocean. However, by January of 2019, it was getting obvious that most of these expectations were not being met. Chinese did deposit $3 billion into Pakistani state bank ($2 billion even before the PTI government was formed) and Saudis and UAE did open up their purse – after the Khashoggi Affair, but none of that was enough in the end to provide Pakistan with what it needed to stabilize its economy and balance of payments. And then came the Indian adventurism in February of 2019.
What really happened in Pulwama, on Feb 14, remains to this day shrouded in mystery; but it was not difficult to see that it immensely benefitted PM Modi’s troubled politics before the national elections and Indian air strike in Balakot was an unprecedented act of brinksmanship in South Asia. Yet the unambiguous support to India of three UN security council members – US, UK, and France – was a clear sign of where the major powers (Pakistan’s former allies) now stood in the complex Indo-Pakistani calculus.
Asad Umar’s departure in April was thus not the simple exit of an incompetent finance minister not able to deliver on the spreadsheet; it marked the change of “political course” a major shift in the belief system and world view by PM Imran Khan and the centers of power that supported him. And if this analysis is true then this “course correction” to please outside centers of power or international system will not stop at Asad Umar; more heads inside Pakistan’s financial architecture may roll. It is believed by many circles in Islamabad that Dr. Hafeez Sheikh will be able to buy more space from IMF and international monetary system to help PM Khan with a relatively popular economic agenda. How Sheikh will deliver on these expectations remains to be seen. It will also be interesting to see what kind of team he assembles around him within the next few weeks.
Does Imran Khan want a Presidential System?
Cabinet reshuffle led to other kinds of challenges for PM Imran Khan, on 30th April, Liaqat Khattak took oath as KP provincial minister, he is the brother of Pervaiz Khattak, the defense minister. Islamabad political circles believe that PM had to acquiesce to demands from an embittered Pervaiz Khattak, who was still expecting a portfolio of interior ministry maintained by PM himself.
However, in the cabinet reshuffle, it went to Brig (retd) Ejaz Shah – who suddenly emerged as a new player on the power scene. Liaqat Khattak’s induction (against a previously declared policy) into KP cabinet has now encouraged expectations that brothers, cousins, and uncles of other key ministers will have to be accommodated into different political offices. Before Khattak’s induction, Imran Khan had held a dam against political nepotism by establishing a policy principle that family members of ministers will not be eligible for government positions.
This shift comes at a time when it was widely believed that PM was so upset by continuous demands – from party members and allies for the award of ministries that he wanted a presidential system instead of parliamentary. Whether PM had ever seriously wanted that, is not clear but “presidential system” remained under discussion on Pakistani media throughout March and April.
Then, prominent TV anchors, followed by WhatsApp chat groups, started spreading rumors that PM has made up his mind to dissolve assemblies and soon the country will be getting an interim government of technocrats supported by Supreme Court and the Army ostensibly to fix the troubled economy. While most of this was political gossip or overactive imagination of sections of the media, but the intensity of the debate and how widely it was discussed underscores the challenges and different pressures being faced by the PTI government.
Imran Khan is generous in lavishing praises and acknowledging achievements of all sorts. He has praised sportsmen, academics, politicians and executives. But those who know him agree that in his entire life he has never supported any person with greater vigor and frequency as he has done in case of Usman Buzdar Punjab’s lackluster CM. Why and on whose recommendation, Khan had selected Buzdar to head Pakistan’s largest province remains a mystery. Punjab’s population is between 110-120 million, this is not only 55% of Pakistan but presents the major challenges of governance and delivery for PTI.
Civil servants and functionaries of the state who are ultimately responsible for all this have never been inspired by Buzdar’s personality; he is inarticulate, lacks leadership and has become a source of ridicule for PTI government over the past 8 months. Rumors of his change have gripped media many times, several key politicians from the existing cabinet – and even outside – have been named as his successors. These included the brilliant sounding Makhdoom Hashim Jawan Bakht, finance minister, Raja Yasir Humayun minister for higher education and tourism noted for his ideas and mature sounding Mian Aslam Iqbal minister for industries, commerce and investments.
But to this day Khan continues to spend political capital to defend his choice or to say more bluntly his “original mistake”. Buzdar, under pressure because of these repeated rumors and apparently demands for performance from the PM, has increased his media presence; he is now daily on TV screens exhibiting one or the other kind of initiative. But almost everyone is convinced that sooner or later Khan will have to admit his mistake and force a change in Punjab. Will this take another 6 weeks or 3 months remains to be seen.
Government with an Overambitious Agenda?
However, this government’s unprecedented challenges match its extraordinary ambitions. In May 2018, two months before the general elections, PTI came up with a “100 Day Agenda” which it promised to unleash within the first 100 days if it formed the government. Generally, such political promises, in Pakistan, are to be made and not kept. However, in the last week of November, Imran Khan’s cabinet was issuing its “performance report card.” This 100-day agenda consisted of six main themes (transforming governance, strengthening the federation, economic growth, agriculture and water, social services and national security) and under each theme were 4-6 sub-themes making a total of 34 deliverables.
Report card admitted that the government was able to initiate work on only 18 out of these 34 ticket items. To imagine how ambitious this government’s agenda is one only needs to look at the sub-themes under the major titles. For instance, under “Economic Growth and Vitalization” one finds a list of goals like: job creation, revival of manufacturing, policy framework for five million homes, boosting tourism, tax reform, ease of doing business, fixing energy challenges, enhancing access to finance and ensuring that CPEC turns into a game changer.
Thirty-four sub-themes thus define Pakistan’s entire spectrum of problems and create formidable challenges in terms of implementation, maintaining progress and explaining what has been achieved and what has not been achieved and why not. As if all this was not ambitious enough, in March and April, the government added another big challenge to its plate when it first launched and then established a policy framework for its poverty alleviation program, “Ehsas” (meaning: to feel for others in English).
Dr. Sania Nishtar, head of Poverty Alleviation Coordination Council nationally respected figure in health policy for her previous work and innovative ideas has developed this program after consultation with all stakeholders in private and public sectors. The program aims to transform the lives of disadvantaged sections of society within the next four years – by laying the foundations of the welfare state. Imran Khan’s ideas of “welfare state” repeatedly refer to state of Madina (harkening back to the period of first 4 Muslim caliphs; the only non-controversial or uniting part of Muslim history) but in terms of practical reality this vision borrows from the modern welfare state across western Europe seen since the end of second world war.
Khan’s government has decided to add another Rs. 80 billion to the cause of poverty alleviation for this program. All sounds good till one realizes that government now wants to take Article 38(d) of the constitution from section of “policy principles” into the section of “fundamental rights.” This change will make the provision of food, clothing, housing, education and medical relief a state responsibility for citizens who cannot earn a livelihood due to sickness, infirmity or unemployment. No doubt this looks immensely desirable, essentially human in terms of ambition, but in terms of implementation, it can be a policy nightmare.
Pakistan is a poor country struggling with difficult economic choices and political debate around welfare states in super rich European countries and aspirations of democratic politics in the United States needs careful analysis to understand the quantum of challenges Imran Khan’s government has added to its already strained deck. Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) maintains a very active website; apart from other details it also lists all press releases. In March PMO issued 50 press releases and in April the number was 56. These mostly relate to actual events and thus provide an excellent overview of the feverish activity that is taking place in the PMO on a range of issues from the economy to foreign policy.
Nawaz Sharif Prime minister from 2013 till 2017 used to take off for Lahore for long weekends, at times he was in Raiwind for several days. Now PMO in Islamabad presents a different picture with PM engaged in endless meetings on energy, tax reforms, IMF, FATF, tourism, poverty alleviation, health policy, housing, CPEC, tribal areas, national security, labor issues, water and dams, and provincial matters. Imagine a subject, and you can find a press release from the records of the past eight months. This is clearly a man who is determined to deliver – but this is also a man and a government under severe pressure.
No one will get NRO?
PTI’s 23rd Foundation Day, Imran Khan reminded his supporters that “success is never a straight journey” and admitted that many leave on the way. He reminded them that nations face difficult times, but things will improve as our reforms work. As a sign of new realism, he toned down a bit and claimed that his government would be successful if it brings down Pakistan’s cumulative debt from Rs. 30,000 billion to Rs. 20,000 billion. However, reinforcing his stand against political corruption, he reiterated that there will be “No NRO” a euphemistic term meaning that no deal will be struck to those accused of mega corruption.
While he keeps repeating this stand, which is important to his support base, it is getting obvious that Pakistan’s criminal justice system has no ability to convict politically connected mega rich – and there may be powerful forces desiring a pardon for the politically corrupt. Most, therefore, expect that sooner or later Nawaz Sharif – convicted but availing an unprecedented bail, first of its kind in Pakistan’s history, on health grounds will find a way out of his problems and leave for London. And that courts will never be able to convict former president, Asif Ali Zardari.
Perhaps realizing these challenges, the PTI government, in end April, brought in a tough officer, Hussain Asghar, as Deputy Chairman National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Asghar, a senior most police officer (BPS-22) has previously worked with Anti-Corruption and enjoys an excellent reputation for talent and delivery. Will he be able to make a difference? It remains to be seen.
PTI Government’s Night of the Long Knives – Saw new faces in the Cabinet
Asad Umar is Central Senior Vice President and perhaps, PTI’s most popular leader, after Imran Khan. Asad served as Pakistan’s finance minister from 20 August 2018 to 18 April 2019. Member National Assembly twice from Islamabad. Before entering politics, he was a known face of the corporate world; served as the president and CEO of Engro Corporation before he resigned and joined PTI in 2012. In cabinet reshuffle, he was offered ministry of petroleum but he opted to resign which was a shocker for the whole political system.
There are a number of theories around his sacking as Pakistan’s financial czar: IMF did not want to work with him; UAE complained of his dismissive manner and perhaps the entrenched business classes were upset over his tax amnesty scheme. Others argue that the real power centers were not happy with his policies that led to a precipitous economic decline. However, given his popularity, his proximity to the PM everyone expects him to be back in the cabinet soon as a senior member with a different ministry or combination of portfolios.
Fawad Hussain Chaudhry is a politician and lawyer by profession. Currently, He is Federal Minister for Science and Technology. Previously, he was the Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting from 20 August 2018 to 18 April 2019. He has been a member of National Assembly of Pakistan since August 2018. Earlier he has served in the federal cabinet under the PPP government of Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani and Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf as Special Assistant for information and political affairs, between April 2012 and March 2013.
Speculations abound that Fawad Chaudhry’s ouster was due to his flamboyant manner of criticizing the opposition and using language with which the circumspect middle-class PTI power holders and supporters were uncomfortable. Another conjecture has it that he took on the PM’s choice of MD PTV and got into verbal argument with his chief of Staff. However, there is no doubt when he was denouncing stories about Asad Umar’s removal on 15 April he had no clue he was also about to go.
Dr. Firdous Ashiq Awan is a politician who is serving as Special Assistant to the Prime Minister Imran Khan (SAP) for Information and Broadcasting – as de-facto Information minister after Fawad Chaudhry’s departure. This is her second stint as Information Minister; she held that portfolio in PPP government under PM Gillani. She holds MBBS degree from Fatima Jinnah Medical College. She was elected as member of National Assembly first time on the reserve seats for women in 2002 under PML-Q ticket.
In 2008, she was elected to the National Assembly from NA-111-Sialkot-II, having joined the PPP. She joined Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in 2017. Media speculations on the cabinet reshuffle are that Babar Awan was the first choice for the Federal Minister of Information and Broadcasting but a lingering question mark over the Nandipur power project case helped Dr. Firdous to be named as the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information and Broadcasting.
Abdul Hafeez Sheikh is an economist and is the current adviser to the Prime Minister Imran Khan on Finance, Revenue & Economic Affairs. He served as Federal Minister in previous governments and was Finance Minister of Pakistan between 2010 and 2013 and Provincial Minister for Finance & Planning in Government of Sindh between 2000 and 2002. He also had been a member of the Senate of Pakistan from 2003 to 2006 and from 2006 to 2012 and then again from 2012 and 2018.
He has worked with a number of prime ministers including Yousaf Raza Gillani, Shaukat Aziz, and Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain He has worked at Harvard University and World Bank and holds Masters and Doctorate degree in Economics from the Boston University. While PTI has garnered a great deal of criticism for appointing PPP’s Finance Minister, it is important to note that Shaikh’s 30 years of experience as a world-renowned economist and economic policymaker make him a credible choice to steer Pakistan out of the financial turmoil and build a strong case in front of international bodies, including the IMF and FATF.
Ijaz Ahmed Shah is a politician, former military officer of Pakistan Army. He is currently serving as the federal Minister for Interior since April 2019. The portfolio was earlier held by the premier while Shehryar Afridi was made the minister of state for interior. Previously, Shah was the State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs from March 2019 to April 2019. He is a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly. He has also served as Director General of Intelligence Bureau of Pakistan from 2004 to 2008.
Shah’s appointment as the Interior Minister has stirred a debate on local and international media platforms given that he is a former spymaster of the military, and one of the four individuals that Benazir Bhutto had named as suspects to be investigated in the event of her death in a letter written to former President Musharraf. Even though Shah’s name never formally emerged with regards to legal proceedings and he has long disassociated himself in the military and entered the electoral process as a civilian, the rumor mill is ripe with the gossip of military interference.
Dr. Sania Nishtar is currently Chairperson Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) and also head of the Poverty Alleviation Coordination Council that has developed the framework for the government’s “Ehsas” program. She started her career as a cardiologist but later turned towards public health policy. She is the author of the famous book, “Choked Pipes” a rare analysis of Pakistan’s dysfunctional health system. And she created Islamabad based health policy think tank, Heartfile.
Previously she served in the interim federal cabinet in 2013 overseeing public health, education and science. She was also shortlisted for Director General World Health Organization (WHO). She studied medicine at Khyber Medical College, Peshawar and later did her doctorate in medicine from King’s College London. Her husband, Ghalib Nishtar, descends from the family of Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar – one of the key leaders of Pakistan movement. He currently heads Khushhali Microfinance Bank.
The writer is Editor of Global Village Space; he is also a prominent TV Anchor and a known columnist.
The analysis also appeared in the globalvillagespace.com