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Imran Khan's Cabinet reshuffle: Party insiders bite the dust as Pakistan PM centralises power, brings back ex-military men

Pakistan never fails to surprise. In what may be called a premature move, just eight months into his tenure, Prime Minister Imran Khan coaxed out not only Finance Minister Asad Umar, who was to preside over a new International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan, but also several others key Cabinet members. These were members of the core team that was to deliver ‘Naya Pakistan’. But as of now it appears that it is in with the old, and out with the new.

The exit of Umar, the highly qualified finance minister, is not just a blow to his professional career, but also a slight on Imran’s government’s capacity to hold a team together. However, Umar’s exit was unsurprising. Just after his appointment, he earned criticism from the pro-China lobby — and they are legion — for his comments that some of the bad loans taken under the previous government may need to be renegotiated. He hastily withdrew that statement, and has since been swearing by Beijing’s generosity at every available forum.

 Imran Khans Cabinet reshuffle: Party insiders bite the dust as Pakistan PM centralises power, brings back ex-military men

File image of Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. Reuters

However, he had to retract other statements. Just after his return from Bali, where he'd gone to first negotiate a loan from the IMF, he went so far as to say that “there was nothing in the CPEC agreements and loans that should be kept secret. Rather, it should be known to the world, placed before parliament and shared with the IMF”. That statement has now come home to roost. It is now clear that Pakistan will have to open the books for the lending organisation, not only on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), but according to Najam Sethi, on the funding being provided by China for nuclear reactors and related activity — which has long quietly included assistance to its weapons programme — and all aspects of funds by China for other weapons programmes.

That’s not all. Once the IMF package — the 13th such package, which might jar the superstitious — is in place, the pace of opening up the books will steadily increase with the release of each tranche every three months or so. So, there’s no wriggling out of those commitments.

Blaming the finance minister for the sins of those who led the country into this mess seems unfair to say the least. It is undoubtedly true that during his visit, he was denied access to the US treasury secretary, having to make do with far lower ranking officials instead. He met only the deputy chair of the IMF, and overall seemed to have been quietly elbowed aside. True, the finance minister had been highly critical of the US, saying rather nastily that the US should look to its own debt to China first before castigating Pakistan. That would have riled officials, but the cold shoulder showed to him was directed against Pakistan’s policies, not him.

Pakistan’s economy has been going from bad to worse over the past few months, with its credit rating being downgraded by S&P among others. He also seems to have annoyed the business lobby, and reportedly also the powerful military. That last assumption by many commentators is probably more due to the fact that his replacement — as an advisor to the prime minister on finance — is none another than Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, another relic of the Musharraf government, who in his time, was seen as “soft” on IMF negotiations.

The fact that he’s an economist with more than 30 years of experience and a degree from Harvard will hardly matter. What will matter is what conditions he can wring out of the international lending body, which at present includes making the State Bank independent, expanding the tax base and recovering a Rs 140 billion electricity debt from consumers. Those conditions are simply politically unacceptable. But they are hard for a finance minister to dodge, however qualified he may be. There could be trouble ahead, not only from the ‘aam aadmi’ but also from the party, whose elected members are increasingly being sidelined.

Which is probably why Imran has also chosen to an old military hand as interior minister. Brigadier Ijaz Shah's selection has already been roundly criticised. He was one of the persons mentioned by Benazir Bhutto as among those desiring her violent demise when he was chief of the Intelligence Bureau when General Musharraf was in power. But there’s much more to the retired Brigadier than a mere conspiracy to kill. He was also said to be well networked to sections of Al-Qaeda. He received the surrender of Omar Saeed Sheikh — who murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl — at an opportune time for the Musharraf government when it was under severe US pressure. But there’s no doubt at all that he’s a good man to have on the side of a prime minister who is unsure of almost everyone around him.

The controversial Shehryar Afridi — accused of the somewhat mundane offence of diverting public funds for his own use —  has been relieved of his office as MoS Interior, and shifted to the somewhat watered down SAFRON: which is not a front office of Hindu religious groups, but the Ministry of State and Frontier Regions. Another party man bites the dust, even as Imran appoints three special assistants to the prime minister, who are to provide him with professional advice on key areas like energy and health. They will also by pass party politics and strictures.

Imran, therefore, seems to be centralising power, even while bringing more former military favourites into this inner circle. That may not really give him more leg room — there’s precious little available in Pakistan’s tense situation anyway — but will certainly protect his back against those wanting him out of the hot seat. Oddly however, his moves are likely to make the Prime Minister’s Office more like that of New Delhi than before. Two former IB chiefs on either side is one such similarity. The most critical difference, however, is yet to be seen, and will depend on the forthcoming elections. Hopefully, an uneasy head wearing the crown won't be a common factor.

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Updated Date: Apr 20, 2019 16:06:48 IST