There could be a powerful committee of ‘economic wizards’ By Nusrat Javed

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As usual, Thursday sitting of the National Assembly started late and straight came to the question hour. One seriously expected that due to frightening surge of the third wave of COVID-19, Dr. Naushin Hamid, the parliamentary secretary on health, would be persuaded to furnish comprehensive and assuaging answers. To extract such answers, Ms Hina Rabbani Khar of the PPP also put a set of pointed questions. Yet the parliamentary secretary failed to reveal any plan that could help us to believe that the government had a well-thought-out strategy for reaching the stage of herd immunity.

Instead of focusing on a worrying issue of public health, however, “our representatives” consumed around twenty minutes to find out why Pakistan could yet not manufacture cars, locally, and seemed stuck to keep assembling them by importing their major parts.

Ms Alya Hamza Malik, the Parliamentary Secretary on Industry, was amazingly equipped with detailed answers. With visible pride, she informed the house that thanks to determined initiatives of the Imran government not one but twenty-one automakers of global repute felt motivated to establish plants in Pakistan. Six of them have already begun producing cars that you can notice on our roads. These cars are not only cheaper than the famous brands but also fulfill the tough standards for safety. Most of them are also environment-friendly.

“Our representatives” were yet not satisfied. They kept on wondering what percentage of locally produced parts was used to manufacture recently introduced cars. The plethora of anxious questions in this respect compelled Ms. Alya Hamza to deliver a short lecture to explain the notion of “the scale of economy.”

The operative part of her lecture politely explained that to encourage the production of major auto parts, the new players of the auto market should at least get the order for half a million cars. She also felt confident that Pakistan might soon be entering that phase due to the policies adopted by the Imran government, which she stressed were completely focusing on economic growth and prosperity.

Dealing with questions related to agriculture, she also refused to endorse the perception that agriculture sector was not doing well in Pakistan these days. She rather kept insisting that average growers of sugarcane and wheat never felt so good as they are feeling these days. They are getting better rates than previously and mill owners also pay them instantly.

Hardly a member of the national assembly cared to ask her that if things were so rosy regarding our agricultural sectors, why the government felt compelled to first approve and then quickly abandon the idea of importing sugar and cotton from India to keep their prices ‘stable’ in Pakistan.

As an old school parliamentary reporter, I was certain that the number-strong opposition would force the government to explain why the Economic Coordination Committee had decided to allow the import of abovementioned items from India after an exhaustive meeting held on Wednesday. It was rather the first major policy decision that Hammad Azhar had announced after replacing Dr Hafiz Sheikh as the Finance Minister of Pakistan. Hardly the day after Federal Cabinet overturned the said decision during its meeting of Thursday.

But instead of putting questions on ‘here and now’ issues, most opposition members preferred to introduce a set of new laws, they had imagined in their private capacity while wearing ‘futuristic hats.’ Little wonder, the ministers feel extremely comfortable while dealing with such a reasonable, mature and responsible opposition, although their comfort often smacks of arrogance.

Ali Mohammad Khan, the state minister of parliamentary affairs, displayed the same on Thursday. He tried to move a resolution to empower Asad Qaisar, the Speaker of the national assembly, to form a parliamentary committee devoting time and energy on ‘electoral reforms.”

The opposition members appeared as if ‘shocked’ by his move. Ms. Shazia Atta Marri and Khurram Dastagir Khan delivered pompous speeches to remind the government that they would not concede “arbitrary powers” to the Speaker. They also believed that nothing was essentially wrong with the set of laws, designed for holding elections. The “real problems” come from somewhere else. Without naming their point of origin, they kept telling the Imran government that it should not expect submissive cooperation from the opposition, when it decides to move on its own in the name of reforming the election-related laws. Instead of putting the resolution for voting, the deputy speaker quickly moved on to “legislative work,’ which certainly induced yawns.

In each nook and corner of parliamentary corridors, small groups of legislators and reporters were rather eager to find out juicy details connected to “massive reshuffle” of the federal cabinet, Prime Minister Imran Khan presumably intends to announce “in a day or so.”

Imran Khan had already surprised us by suddenly announcing the sacking of Dr. Hafiz Sheikh with the start of ongoing week. His sacking motivated many to feel as if he had had enough of ‘technocrats’ and after spending 30 months in the government, he now wanted to devise and execute people-friendly policies with a new team. Instead of dominated by ‘unelected advisors,’ the said team would represent the collective aspirations of hardcore political types, wanting to stay loyal to Imran Khan, rain or shine.

But after sacking Hafiz Sheikh and Nadim Babar, Imran Khan appointed another “unelected technocrat” to run the ministry of energy. Omar Ayub Khan, who had accumulated huge experience of running the finance-related ministriessince the days of General Musharraf as a “junior” minister, has been running the said ministry. He is still there, but no one is sure about his future now.

Similarly, rumors are rife that even after replacing Dr. Hafiz Sheikh, Hammad Azhar would still need active and wise guidance to run the formidable ministry of finance. The name of Shaukat Tareen, a veteran banker, is making rounds in the given context.

Asif Ali Zardari had first discovered Tareen after being elected as the President after the election of 2008. Yousaf Raza Gillani was asked to hand over the ministry of finance to him and he negotiated a hefty “bailout package” with IMF. After some months, however, he began feeling uncomfortable with intrusions in his domain and opted to leave. Dr Hafiz Sheikh replaced him, but failed to win the trust of Asif Ali Zardari.

Shaukat Tareen, lest you forget, was again approached to serve the Imran government in 2019, when it felt that Asad Umar was not able to fly. Tareen declined because NAB had established cases against him.

The same cases are still there, awaiting final closure by the Supreme Court. And Tareen doesn’t want to face the so-called “media trial” after joining the Imran government with the status and powers of a federal minister.

Yet, the government seems determined to seek his guidance, almost desperately. To facilitate the same, there could be a powerful committee of “economic wizards” devising policies for the government. Tareen may head it and Hammad Azhar will simply be asked to execute the policies provided by the said committee.

But the youthful minister must already be feeling quite embarrassed. After all, the federal cabinet has overturned the first policy initiative that he had announced for allowing the import of sugar and cotton from India. And this happened within four days of his taking over the ministry of finance. Not a “good start” by all means.