Project PTI in peril?

THE manner in which the cabinet was reshuffled this week has raised the inevitable question: is project PTI beginning to unravel? It is difficult to say for sure but the state of the economy has been causing jitters in the corridors of power for weeks now.

Interestingly enough, up to the eve of the reshuffle which left the finance minister Asad Umar and health minister Amir Kiani without a cabinet position and several other ministers in new ministries, top government spokesman Fawad Chaudhry was vehemently denying any such move.

In fact, speaking earlier in the week, Mr Chaudhry, who has been moved from the information to the science and technology ministry, described all news of ministerial changes as ‘misinformation’.

If Asad Umar was aware of the impending decision, he gave no hint of it.

Two TV channels which were reporting the reshuffle, were served notices by the Pemra, the regulator, for false reporting. The regulator, echoing the government position, also accused the channel management of creating chaos among the public and maligning the government functionaries.

One of the channels served with the notice appeared so confident due to the ‘credibility’ of its source, it refused to remove from its website the news even as its CEO and that of the other channel were summoned to Pemra on April 22 to explain their position. Do you see that happening now?

No. Not after the events of Thursday, April 18, vindicated these channels’ position. It was not just these channels. Some ‘analysts’, who are also known to have access to the thinking of the powers that be, were saying the same thing even as they were unsure of the reshuffle’s timing.

Sources say that ‘messages’ conveyed to the prime minister through the media and other means did not seem to yield the desired result. To the contrary, categorical rebuttals were issued by a minister designated as the prime minister’s and the cabinet’s spokesman.

On the eve of his exit from the cabinet, the finance minister himself appeared on a TV programme and spoke at length about the long-term prospects of the economy. He’d just returned after negotiating a package with the IMF in Washington. If he was aware of the impending decision, he gave no hint of it.

Although addressing the media the following day after he’d tweeted confirmation that he was leaving the government as his ‘captain wants to see me in another cabinet role’ he was not interested in, he also said he was made aware of the decision late the night before.

Another source said that the decision was taken after an angry message was given to the prime minister. In all likelihood, he was persuaded to replace his finance minister by the argument that it would serve his and his government’s best interests.

Even then the prime minister, who has held up Asad Umar as one of the brightest stars of his party even since the latter joined the PTI seven years ago, allowed his key lieutenant the dignity of announcing his own departure rather than removing him via an official statement.

Others were not so lucky. Amir Kiani’s replacement was publicised in a statement. A source said Kiani had to go because of the spiralling medicine prices some of which were attributable to his decisions.

Petroleum minister Ghulam Sarwar was shifted to aviation because he is said to have mishandled the LNG orders and sharp rises in domestic gas prices. News reports suggest he is unhappy with the move and may not agree to head the aviation ministry.

Perhaps, one the most controversial additions to the cabinet was Nadeem Babar’s who’s been made in charge of the petroleum ministry despite being a major shareholder in a power company which is a huge defaulter of SNGPL. Even earlier cries of conflict of interest were ignored when he was named to head the energy task force.

Azam Swati was made minister. He resigned from the cabinet late last year after an angry Supreme Court chief justice took a dim view of the minister using his influence to have the capital’s police chief removed. The minister was reportedly angry as the IGP did not take his calls when he wanted a poor neighbour living next to his palatial farm house ‘sorted out’.

However, the most controversial decision was the elevation as full minister of retired Brig Ijaz Shah who was given charge of the powerful interior ministry. Mr Shah was one of the key lieutenants of the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf and is said to have had a hand in the formation of the PML-Q and the PPP Patriots before and after the 2002 elections respectively.

The former intelligence official will now lead the PTI’s ‘accountability drive’ and will be one of the main arbiters regarding who gets to be put on the infamous and much-abused Exit Control List.

If a new steward of the economy was seen as a must for better handling of the nation’s finances and economic growth, an equally important prerequisite, political stability, seems to have been ignored in Shah’s appointment. Earlier this week, he threatened opposition activists with ‘beatings’ and other harsh measures if they gathered for any public protest.

The events triggered by the so-called Dawn leaks (some 30 months ago) began to spell the end of the Nawaz Sharif government. When the military’s apparent disposition towards the PML-N seemed unchanged after the baton of command passed from Raheel Sharif to Qamar Bajwa, it was clear the Sharifs had to go, given the country’s power equation.

What was then visualised, and it is apparent that no stone was left unturned to attain that, was an administration ‘chosen by the people of clean and competent’ people to steer the country to stability and prosperity. Tragically, that project seems not to have delivered so far. What if things remain the same going forward?

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2019

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