Cabinet reshuffle

Hafeez Shaikh In

Asad Umar Out

Maryam Asif

The resignation of Finance Minister Asad Umar and the accompanying cabinet reshuffle has generated a lot of controversial heat in the country. While the government spokesmen have defended and justified the decision, the opposition parties have used the occasion to criticise Imran Khan and describe his running of the country’s affairs as a failure. One reason for the brouhaha is that Asad Umar’s resignation came only days after strong denial by the government that any such thing was happening.

Asad Umar’s eight-month term as Finance Minister saw the economy sinking deeper into recession. He has the unique distinction of presenting two mini budgets within one financial year without authoring an annual budget. His term saw the economic growth rate fall from a 13-year high of 5.8% to an estimated under 4% by the end of the ongoing fiscal year. Inflation is also estimated to be the highest ever in a decade. Under his incumbency, the rupee rapidly lost its value and the process of slippage has not stopped. Unprecedented price hikes upset the average household budget.

Asad Umar was a close, loyal friend and jettisoning him must have been a painful decision for Imran Khan. But the gloomy economic indicators as well as the rising crescendo of criticism from the opposition and the media ultimately forced the prime minister’s hand. It is also no secret that Asad Umar was facing criticism even from within the party.

According to some analysts, Asad Umar’s departure indicates that the reform-oriented wing of the PTI is going to take a backseat for the foreseeable future, and Pakistan’s economic future will be managed by those who are the guardians of status quo. Umar had his own faults and failures, but insiders say that his efforts were undermined by the conservative lobby within the party.

There is little doubt that PTI inherited an economy on the verge of collapse. This had been predicted months before the elections. But it now seems that neither Imran Khan nor Asad Umar and others truly fathomed the seriousness of the fundamental issues until they came to power. The main challenge was to stabilise the economy and bring certainty to the market, while pushing through tough decisions during the first 100 days. But the PTI failed in its task, with each passing day adding more to the existing basket of problems.

Basically, there was no direction as far as the economy is concerned. Asad Umar was no economist and did not develop an overall design. So most of the time he was engaged in firefighting. He did not seem to be in control of the situation. Uncertainty is the worst thing that can happen to an economy — and that is what happened. No one knew where the economy was going. He failed to give the needed sense of confidence to the markets and to the general public that things could be fixed.

In the opinion of some analysts, Umar, being finance minister, should take the main blame, but Imran Khan as the team leader cannot be absolved of his responsibility. The finance ministry is the most important ministry in the cabinet, but it is also something to do with lack of direction and faulty policies at the highest level.

The major problem with the present government is that there is lack of a sense of direction. Imran Khan’s choice of persons has been open to question as evidenced by the appointment of Buzdar to head the Punjab government. The same goes for some other appointments. But since he is the ultimate boss and repository of all power, nobody in the party can question his decisions.

The man chosen to replace Asad Umar is Hafeez Shaikh who has spent long years working with the World Bank. This is said to be a major factor in his elevation to head the finance ministry at a time when an IMF programme is in the works. His last assignment was as the federal minister for finance in the last PPP government. But he could not do much to steer the economy out of the woods It remains to be seen how he fits into PTI’s framework of governance.

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