By: Najam Sethi
A cheeky reporter asked Imran Khan the other day whether it was easier to lead the opposition than to run government. Pat came the reply: “Government”. The Prime Minister couldn’t be more wrong. As he stumbles from one stupid decision to another, he would be advised to heed the wise old man with a leaky umbrella: If you know that you don’t know, you can learn and become a wise man; but if you don’t know that you don’t know, you’re a fool who will court disaster.
It has taken Imran Khan over nine months of U-Turns to finally decide that Pakistan cannot do without an IMF bailout plan. In the process, he has thrown Asad Umar overboard, his avowed right hand finance minister, and sacked Tariq Bajwa, Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, whose three-year constitutional term still had a year to run. The irony is that both home spun gentlemen were striving to conclude a realistic adjustment programme with the IMF so that the expected hardship could be spread over the populace less inequitably and more gradually. On the other hand, the two gentlemen he has imported to replace them, Hafeez Sheikh and Raza Baqir, are blue-blooded by the standards of international donor finance institutions, including the IMF, and are likely to sign on the dotted line as and when required. The irony is that the IMF has long advocated the necessity of the SBP being independent, or at least autonomous, of the Finance Ministry. Now it is rubbing its hands in glee at the effective merger of the SBP with the Ministry of Finance under two IMF-chosen “experts”.
The PM’s decision to appoint Shabbar Zaidi as Chairman FBR, even as the incumbent, Jehanzeb Khan, is still working overtime to prepare budgetary plans, is another lesson in arrogant recklessness. The Establishment Secretary’s note for approval of the cabinet says that there may be a conflict of interest in Mr Zaidi’s case and contempt of court if proper procedures and concerns for selecting someone to such a post aren’t followed. The PM didn’t like this summary and ordered it replaced with a one point note seeking approval of the appointment on a pro-bono basis. It may be recalled that in at least four judgments between them, the Supreme Court, the Islamabad High Court and the Lahore High Court have struck down earlier Prime Ministerial appointments of Chairman Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority, Tariq Sadek; Chairman FBR, Ali Arshad Hakeem; Chairman Securities and Exchange Commission, Mohammad Ali; and Chairman PEMRA Absar Alam, for failing to follow strict guidelines of selection, competition and transparency. Indeed, even Presidential appointments without due process are open to challenge in the courts, as evidenced in the case of Salman Farooqui some years ago. Bilawal Bhutto says he may challenge Baqir’s appointment. Meanwhile, the appointment of Hafeez Sheikh has already been challenged in the Peshawar High Court and there is resistance from the FBR Officers Association to Mr Zaidi’s proposed nomination. The likelihood is that either Mr Zaidi will extricate himself from this mess by withdrawing his candidature or Imran Khan will ride roughshod over all objections and appoint him, only to face legal challenges in due course.
The recent cabinet changes also confirm the fact that Imran Khan is clueless about how to pick and choose a successful team. Why Usman Buzdar continues to be Punjab CM remains a mystery that has stricken half of Pakistan. Why Fawad Chaudhry, who was an effective pain in the opposition’s neck, was shunted to the Ministry of Science (“Hubble telescope was put into orbit by Suparco” will remain a priceless gem for a long time) and replaced by Firdaus Awan of no particular virtue, will rankle for months to come. Why, after having kicked out Asad Umar ignominiously, the PM is now desperate to bring him back into his fold, is equally baffling. And so on.
In a meeting of the PTI parliamentary Party last Wednesday, the PM was confronted with awkward questions. Why was Asad Umar sacked? Why are blue-eyed IMF boys being imported to run the economy when everyone knows the IMF programme is going to alienate the populace and make it bitterly angry at the PTI? Why are parliamentarian legislators being shunted from ministerial positions as enjoined by the constitution and replaced with non-accountable advisors and special assistants? Does the PM have any idea of how the graph of the PTI is falling outside the PM House and why his MNAs and MPAs are unable to show their faces in their respective constituencies?
Imran Khan’s response was not surprising. I am the PM. I am answerable to the people and not you. I will take whatever decisions I think are in the people’s interest. In effect, shape up or ship out.
It didn’t occur to the “selected” PM that this applies more than ever to him rather than anyone else. He doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.