Muddling through By Khurram Husain

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ONE almost feels bad for Hammad Azhar, the newly inducted finance minister, hailed as the younger new face of change that the PTI yearns for. The sun hadn’t gone down on his first day on the job and he was already witness to the spectacle of his replacement being discussed on national TV. From here on he will be hobbled, as all his subordinates now know that there are powerful misgivings about him occupying such an important position, and a search — even if abortive — is already on for another to sit in his chair.

Every morning he will leave for office not knowing whether he will still be the finance minister when he returns home. The examples of Asad Umar and Hafeez Sheikh — both tossed out ignominiously — will hang like the sword of Damocles over his head throughout his tenure. Till the filing of this article, no official denial had come from the government regarding this news of Hammad Azhar being replaced, despite the passage of many hours since tickers crawled across the TV screens announcing it as breaking news.

Shaukat Tarin didn’t say much when I called to ask him whether it is true that he is being considered for the post of finance minister as the channels were claiming. All he said was that NAB has filed an appeal against his acquittal in the rental power case and while that matter is still pending, there is no question of him accepting any public office, whether as a minister or as an adviser. He also added, in reply to a question, that he is not ready to accept any office that does not come with the requisite powers to implement decisions, thereby ruling out any advisory role. The last time word of his possible induction in the cabinet circulated, back in the early months of the PTI government, he had said much the same thing. No real surprises there. He did confirm that he has been asked to play some such role in the government, but would not say when the last such offer was made.

Read: Ex-PPP minister Shaukat Tarin to head economic advisory board

So what’s going on? All through the closing months of 2020, the prime minister was saying the economy is ‘on the right track’. Almost with a sense of triumph, he and his minions in cabinet would list all the good things they were seeing happen in the economy and congratulate their Great Leader. The engines of large-scale industry were revving, revenues collections were on target, the stock market was booming, corporate profitability was near record highs, remittances were pouring in, external-sector deficits had vanished and turned into a surplus and so on and forth.

The Americans call this ‘muddling through’, a situation when those in charge don’t know what they are doing.

The government’s economic story was playing out well among its own army of social media acolytes and associated voices, but among the people there was strong and growing disquiet as food inflation ravaged their incomes and well-being. And this disquiet found its ways into the highest offices of the land thanks to that most fundamental premise of democracy that keeps the fate of ruler and ruled tied together.

In the run-up to the Senate elections, Imran Khan tried hard to sell Sheikh as the man who has worked miracles for Pakistan’s economy, plugging its deficits and putting it ‘on the right track’. Even after Sheikh lost his bid for a Senate seat, the first person Khan met after securing his own vote of confidence from parliament was Sheikh, and refused to take his resignation, telling him instead that he must continue in office.

As late as Friday, March 26, Sheikh was holding conference calls with bond investors around the world, selling Pakistan’s economic story in the run-up to a crucial Eurobond flotation scheduled for Tuesday, March 30. He was sacked on Monday, March 29, literally one day before the bond was supposed to be offered to the same investors who had listened to his pitch a couple of days earlier.

A couple of bond traders with large institutions, who participated in Tuesday’s bond offering, told me that they were asked by their bosses what exactly happened with Sheikh, and more specifically, what this meant for the IMF programme that Pakistan had only begun a few days earlier. They had no good answers to give, and this surely played a role in denting investor enthusiasm for Pakistan’s offering. More on that another time.

The Americans call this ‘muddling through’, a situation when those in charge don’t know what they are doing and are making up their moves as they go along reacting to circumstances instead of doggedly pursuing clear objectives. That’s what the government has been doing, at least on the economic front, since they came into power: muddling through. They muddled their way into an IMF programme after their hand was forced by the removal of Asad Umar. They muddled their way through the ensuing economic adjustment, then muddled on through the pandemic, opening up all plants and factories in the name of protecting livelihoods and showering largesse upon the owners of capital in the form of tax breaks and subsidies. And now they have muddled into a hasty removal of the finance chief, whom they were until recently hailing for his contribution to economic stabilisation.

And no sooner had they done this and appointed his successor, and gone on to hail him as the younger face of the new PTI that they wanted all along, they muddled on to consider a replacement because, quite obviously, other powerful constituencies that they have sworn to remain on the same page with, seemed to be unhappy with their choice. I’ve said it before, and have to say it again. This muddling through will never end, because the person at the top never did — and never will — get it that power is serious business. In the meantime, the costs pile up higher and higher for us all to pay.

The writer is a business and economy journalist.