The Asad Umer Debacle

Source: Public TV News

The PTI mandate on the election date as its voters saw it seems to be falling apart. Last Thursday, the Prime Minister asked the Foreign Minister, the main star of the team, Asad Umer to step down. Asad Umer was touted as the economic solution for the country for about the last 7 to 8 years by the party. The problems started to mount when people realized that the foreign minister of the populist communitarian party that had promised “the Medina welfare state” in the manner of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Islamic Socialism was too right-wing liberal for their liking. His changes, along with an aggressive anti-money laundering drive, resulted in a decline in economic growth, slow stock and real estate markets, and high inflation due to dollar appreciation.

Hungry and desperate for power, PTI promised just about everything under the sun to their voters ever since their antics during the 2014 sit-in protest. Burning power bills due to a hike in energy prices, it was no wonder that the people were not having anything from them when they applied the same policies. Always telling the people that the foreign debt was not the way to govern, PTI had little choice but to turn to the IMF for financing a bankrupt country.

Of course, PTI and Asad Umer did the right thing to turn to the IMF. They just had a hard time getting rid of a populist, anti-corruption narrative that they got elected on and which is still a big part of their campaigns targeting opposition leaders. Especially because they considered governance by foreign debt a part of corruption too. Many of their uncompromising fans, who were taught by them to be uncompromising, felt cheated.

You could argue that Asad Umer should be given the benefit of doubt. He was doing what he considered right as evident by his recent commentary. He said that PTI decided that they would not resort to populist politics and that the value of the Rupee was artificially appreciated by the PML-N foreign minister Ishaq Dar all this point. But as far as the inflation rate and fuel and power prices are concerned, people could only take so much and the deep state was not having it.

The problem is that as much the country has been right wing ever since the execution of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, it has always been keen on subsidizing the “basic necessities” for the underprivileged. Even President Ayub’s popular term was challenged due to public protests over the increase in the price of sugar which eventually led to its downfall. With such a history, the bureaucratic state in Pakistan fears to go Marie Antoinette on the Pakistan people, since they accept other modes of repression happily like curbing freedom of speech. But most people agree that this cabinet change came at a very inappropriate time, particularly Asad Umer’s position.

But does Imran Khan really lack judgment to this extent? His critics who always doubted his intelligence are not surprised. But he did have a lot of flair and sense during the early part of his political career as evident by these old clips. He used to openly criticize the role of the military and the security agencies. But in Pakistan, things change when you get to govern. But is it really his government?

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However, some people are offering some other reason why the Thursday cabinet reshuffle occurred. Some are calling it a coup. Others pointing toward a possible transition to the (Islamic) Presidential System. It could be that the cabinet reshuffle came as the eventual shift that the alleged installers of a weak administration wanted on their terms. Or it could even be a power move to remind Imran Khan not to attempt to make too many powerful decisions. Whatever may be the case, it either shows an indecisive Prime Minister unsure of his vision of governance or a toothless executive following the narrative of the deep state.

Some would argue that abandoning his stubborn and morally constipated political stance has finally earned him the position of Prime Minister and that he is finally acting like a politician as his critics had earlier wanted him to. Whatever may be true, it is evident that General Bajwa enjoys undermining his position as far as their body language in joint appearances is concerned.

What is particularly embarrassing for Imran Khan is the appointment of Brig. (R) Ijaz Shah, who now takes over Imran Khan’s Portfolio of Federal Interior Minister. Shah, whose appointment as ambassador was refused by the Australian government due to alleged terrorist group connections, He is also alleged by some to be among those responsible for the death of Benazir Bhutto. With such appointments, making the cabinet almost the mirror image of the state establishment sanctioned PPP cabinet, and raises a lot of question marks about the credibility of PTI.

Not sure if Imran Khan will reflect on the gravity of the situation, but at least the youth voters of PTI have tasted the consequences of their ballot for the first time. It has left them shaken and has induced self-doubt, if not buyer’s remorse. It did indeed cause a division in the loyal nationalist fanbase of the party.

Let’s just hope they learn to differentiate between idiotic rhetoric and the real world to make a fresh start. And also that a change in ministries doesn’t matter if the problem lies in the leadership.