Author : Sushant Sareen

Originally Published 2019-04-29 09:21:11 Published on Apr 29, 2019
The first cabinet reshuffle is intimation of the govt's impending demise. The army has taken back control of vital portfolios. They will find a new puppet PM. Till then, Imran Khan's options are severely limited.
Soft Coup, hard fall in Pakistan

The fairy tale that had been built around the legendary Imran Khan as the knight in shining armour who will make Pakistan a land of milk and honey has started to unravel — and how.

Eight months into government, and it is clear that Imran Khan and his ‘roundtable’ comprises less of Knights and resembles more a bunch of clueless, inept and inefficient knaves and klutzes.

Simply put, Imran Khan is fast turning out to be an experiment that is going horribly wrong. It increasingly appears as though those who selected Imran Khan are now trying to limit the damage. And while the experiment is unlikely to be scrapped immediately, efforts are being made to try and persist with the experiment for some more time.

In most countries, there is nothing extraordinary about a cabinet reshuffle — it does create a buzz in political circles and dominates the news cycle for a couple of days because of the political signals it conveys — reordering or refocusing of the government’s priorities, and, of course, indications of the changing political equations and inner dynamics in the ruling dispensation.

In Pakistan, however, the first reshuffle in the Imran Khan cabinet is being seen as all this and more — an advance intimation of the impending demise of the government.

At the very least, it is being seen as an acknowledgement of not just a failure of governance but also an ‘establishment’-driven experiment gone awry.

Over the last eight months, the handling of the economy has been disastrous, and governance has been utterly feckless. If this wasn’t enough, the ruling party has entered into needless fights with the opposition, hounding it and virtually pushing it against the wall. To the extent that the political slugfest has shifted the focus of the public debate in the media from the economic crisis and governance deficit, this strategy has had its uses — but the law of diminishing returns has now kicked in.

On the one hand, despite all the political theatrics, the worsening economic situation — falling growth, rising indebtedness, growing unemployment, spike in inflation — and the absence of governance has now started being felt on the street.

On the other hand, the hounding of the opposition has meant that there is a complete political logjam. As a result, important legislation and building the necessary political consensus on a range of issues has been stuck because the ruling dispensation has neither the numbers in Parliament to push through legislation, nor the political capital to proceed with getting all major parties on board on things like anti-terror policies.

The military establishment, which not just played a role in bringing Imran Khan to power but has also been responsible for keeping him in power, has apparently tried to ease things for the opposition — the bail given to leader of opposition Shahbaz Sharif, the six-week bail given on medical grounds to Nawaz Sharif, the slight easing of the push against the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leadership.

But Imran Khan has not taken kindly to these moves.

The one-trick pony that he is, Imran Khan has dug in his heels on the issue of ‘ensuring accountability’ of the ‘corrupt’ politicians who preceded him. It now seems as though the military has had to back down in the face of Imran Khan’s tantrums — according to the grapevine, Imran Khan threatened to quit rather than let the Sharifs or Asif Zardari or any of their cronies off the hook. But even as the Army has, for now, given in to Imran Khan on his ‘jihad’ against corruption, it wasn’t ready to sit on the sidelines and watch endlessly the dangerous drift in the affairs of state.

There is a lot of talk of how this reshuffle is primarily the handiwork of the military masters of the current regime, which is now taking over the control of the economy.

For weeks, there were rumours (according to a Pakistani commentator, in Islamabad, rumours are but premature facts) about the imminent sacking of finance minister Asad Umar, Imran Khan’s golden boy and the man touted as the financial wizard who would solve all Pakistan’s economic problems. When the axe finally fell, apart from his appalling incompetence in getting a handle on the economy, there were two theories on why Asad Umar had been fired. One theory was that he had agreed to certain conditions with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — it isn’t clear whether they pertained to Chinese loans, Chinese military assistance and weapons projects, or cutting defence spending — unacceptable to the military; the second theory is opposite to the first one and claims that he was obdurate and either unwilling or unable to strike a deal with the IMF — and therefore had to be replaced.

The fact that Asad Umar’s replacement — Dr Hafeez Shaikh — is a guy Imran Khan had apparently never even met before appointing him his adviser on finance (de facto finance minister) says a lot about who selected him.

Shaikh had been a member of the Parvez Musharraf cabinet as privatisation minister and later was imposed by the army on the Zardari government as finance minister. The way he was plucked out of his perch in the UAE and appointed finance czar of Pakistan has the fingerprints of the military establishment all over it. Unlike his two immediate predecessors who had a background in accountancy and marketing but pranced about as economists, Shaikh is a qualified economist.

Even so, his previous stint as head of the finance ministry wasn’t anything to write home about — in fact, he presided over one of the worst performing periods in Pakistan's economic history when inflation was in double digits, growth hovered around 2% and Pakistan was unable to complete the IMF programme because Shaikh had no political capital to push through the necessary reforms that might have put the Pakistani economy on a more sustainable and stable footing.

There was virtually no meaningful reform during his last tenure, and given that the macroeconomic situation is far worse today, it is highly unlikely if he can push through any meaningful reform this time around. Perhaps his main USP is his contacts in the multilateral financial institutions which the powers-that-be in Pakistan hope will ease some of the conditionalities and push through the IMF bailout package.

The bottom line however is that Imran Khan no longer calls the shots on how the economy is to be managed — which means that all the fancy schemes and packages he is busy announcing will not get funded and will therefore be stillborn.

However, Shaikh is not the only unelected, unelectable technocrat calling the shots in the Imran Khan cabinet — in fact, one-third of the cabinet is now stacked with such people, many controlling crucial portfolios and ministries, including commerce, petroleum, health and parts of the information ministry. Detractors of the Imran Khan government point out that bulk of the cabinet is stacked with people from 'purana Pakistan' — i.e., those who had been members of the cabinet during the Musharraf and Asif Ali Zardari regimes, many of them quintessential establishment proxies. Even some elected members inducted into the cabinet have an extremely dubious record.

The new interior minister Ijaz Shah is a retired military officer who was not only a very nasty chief of the Intelligence Bureau under Musharraf, but also is known to reportedly have deep links with all sorts of despicable jihadis — including Al Qaeda and Omar Sayeed Sheikh, the killer of the American journalist Daniel Pearl.

Even before he was appointed interior minister, he had threatened the opposition with a shoe beating if they dared to do what Imran Khan used to do in opposition — dharna or lockdown to protest against the government. Once again, Ijaz Shah’s appointment is believed to have been pushed by the military establishment which wants to consolidate its hold over the internal security machinery.

The latest reshuffle thus smacks of a soft coup, in which the military is inserting itself directly into the running of the country through proxies, even as they use Imran Khan as the civilian political face of the government. In other words, the puppet show of Pakistani politics has reduced Imran Khan into an even bigger puppet than he was until now. Even though he proved to be utterly incompetent and has embarrassed the country by shooting off his mouth — accepting that jihadi groups were created by the military, stating that terrorist groups operate from inside Pakistan against Iran, speaking (on more than one occasion) of how Germany and Japan set up industries along their border to create interests in peace — he continues to serve the purpose of the ‘deep state’, which has no one to replace him with — just yet.

The only trouble is that this arrangement — it is speculated that these changes are a precursor to a much more widespread change in the constitutional scheme from a parliamentary to a presidential form of government — will be difficult to sustain for very long.

On the economic front, the change of face isn’t going to change the fundamental problems that confront the economy. With the Americans playing hardball, the IMF not quite buying into the sob stories and insisting on onerous upfront reforms, and the FATF sword hanging over Pakistan’s head, things are looking tight for Pakistan. Without reforms, the inexorable slide to doom will continue; with reforms, there will be massive dislocation and distress which will fuel political discontent, which, in turn, will feed into the growing disquiet, both within the ruling dispensation (already bristling over being ignored in favour of unelected appointees) as well as the opposition.

Clearly, given the way the situation is developing, even if Imran Khan is not going anywhere anytime soon, neither is Pakistan.

Pakistan will remain in a bind, which gives whoever forms the next government in New Delhi yet another opportunity to exploit the situation to India’s advantage.

But this will happen only if the policy elite in India are able to get over their hackneyed formulations on Pakistan.

This commentary originally appeared in DailyO.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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