Pakistan Government’s Cabinet Reshuffle: Crisis Management and the Role of Deep State
Prateek Joshi

Pakistan Government's cabinet recently underwent a reshuffle, and the removal of Asad Umar and Fawad Chaudhary from their respective portfolios (Finance Ministry and Information and Broadcasting Ministry) comes across as a change of course in the civil-military ties when understood in context of their replacements and other new faces in the cabinet. Further, the appointment of Brigadier (Retd) Ijaz Shah as the Interior Minister is also being viewed as a fulcrum of army's efforts to keep the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) Government under the Army's strict control, as if the latter's hold was any less in the past.

If the PTI is a creation of the Army to counter the traditional family-driven political parties, it is equally a product of public resentment against corruption. The remaining gap was filled by the Pakistani media which projected Imran Khan as a messiah destined to rescue Pakistan from ills affecting it. After the PTI was voted to power, two significant challenges began distancing it from the masses which supported it, namely the economic instability and its faulty PR and communication strategy with the Pakistani citizens.

On the economic front, fiscal and monetary tightening, and negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) resulted in massive expenditure cuts and spiraling inflation. The Public Sector Development Expenditure was cut by 250 billion rupees in the supplementary budget introduced last September. On the monetary side, depreciation of Pakistani Rupee continued and reached an all-time low of 145 rupee per dollar by last November. Meanwhile, the Government began raising prices of basic utilities including fuel prices which generated public resentment. All these developments stood in stark contrast to PTI's ambitious economic agenda in its election manifesto.

The problems were complemented by the party’s failure to communicate its limitations to the media and citizens. Rather than working to placate the simmering discontent against its economic policies, the Government turned its hostilities against the opposition parties, making the Pakistan Muslim League (PML)-N and Nawaz Sharif as its leading targets. Information minister Fawad Chaudhry's press conferences were more directed against the pending corruption cases on the opposition leaders. The economic crunch and PTI's public stance gave the opposition leaders a strong reason to challenge Imran Khan even if the Army wanted them disunited.

The recent change of guard also dismantled the simplistic paradigm Imran Khan operated on, with an expectation to be in the good books of the Army and consolidating his political position by attacking opposition leaders. As Hussain Haqqani recently wrote, Khan "assumed that as long as he did the military's bidding in the foreign policy and pursue the army's critics with a vengeance, the civilian government and the military would remain on the same page." The reshuffle is a strong signaling from the army to get the PTI work more seriously since the party seems to be stuck in a campaigning mode only. In the larger picture, this also points towards maturing of the Army's engineering efforts which convey its message without upsetting the governance structure, probably because it still sees Imran as a more reliable candidate for the time being.

The PTI in turn has signaled back to the Army, if the initial optics are to be believed. Immediately after her appointment as the Prime Minister's, Special Assistant on Information and Broadcasting, Firdous Awan, in her first address to the media persons recalled the media's indispensability in PTI's electoral victory and stated that the Government would not be confrontational in its communications with the media, thereby insinuating The Government’s better Public Relations (PR) efforts in the making.

On the other hand, there are few theories circulating on the Pakistani electronic media regarding the ouster of Finance Minister Asad Umar. One strong theory doing rounds is to do with IMF's insistence to cut the defence expenditure as part of the Government's fiscal consolidation efforts. While it would be naive to believe that Umar must have agreed to this during the course of negotiations, the fact that the issue came up in the discussions with the IMF may have prompted the Army into action. Even if a cut in the defence expenditure was not forthcoming, Umar's removal puts an end to the debate on a potential compromise with the defence expenditure. This is corroborated by the appointment of Dr. Hafiz Sheikh who replaced Umar as the Financial Advisor to the Prime Minister.

Sheikh has been associated with the World Bank and has long experience of dealing international financial institutions. He served as the Privatisation Minister during the Musharraf era and during his term as the Finance Minister in the last Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government; he unsuccessfully led the negotiations with the IMF. Pakistan eventually secured the bailout in 2013, but only after the PML-N came to power. For the reasons best known to the establishment, the appointment of an economist with a history of unsuccessful negotiations with the IMF does not make sense at this critical juncture.

Further, Umar had not been on good terms with Jahangir Tareen who happens to be the PTI's other power center and a close confidante of Imran Khan. In the ongoing austerity drive, it is believed that he had planned on cutting the massive sugar subsidies which got the hostile sugar lobby in action against him. Jahangeer Tareen himself is a sugar baron, which might have prompted him to act against Umar.

Lastly, Ijaz Shah's appointment as the interior minister comes as shock, given his past track record of hiding Laden when he served as the head of the Intelligence Bureau. His links with terror outfits are well known. This reconfirms the fact that Pakistan is not worried about the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) pressure. Two things are possible in this regard, that is, either the FATF is a non-issue for Pakistan or there is some high level back channel between Rawalpindi and Washington, that takes care of FATF issue. Also, seen in the domestic context, Ijaz Shah - with his expertise in coercing politicians during the Musharraf era and his tough task master image - can prevent the opposition from challenging the PTI. Brigadier Shah is expected to play a key role in dissipating the opposition which is challenging Imran Khan with frequent street protests and encashing on the public anger on the Government’s economic policies.

While it remains to be seen if the Government is able to revive its popularity and win back its support base, what is evident from the reshuffle is the Army's firefighting efforts and continuing support to the Government.

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