Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty
The TTP and LeJ aren’t the only ones bombing and terrorizing the people of Pakistan. The PMLN government, it seems, is quite adept at tormenting the people too, the recent “petrol bomb” being a case in point.

Since the government wields monopolistic control over the import, regulation and supply of fuel through the Ministry of Petroleum (MoP), Oil and Gas Development Authority (OGRA) and Pakistan State Oil (PSO), the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, has pinned responsibility for the criminal mismanagement of petrol supplies in the country on senior officials and bureaucrats in the three departments. But the petroleum and finance ministers have gone scot free despite evidence of negligence and culpability.  Consider.

PSO, which imports the fuel and sells it to private and public sector entities that refine and sell it as petrol or produce electricity from it, is cash strapped because it is owed over Rs 200 billion by various government entities like WAPDA, PIA, KAPCO, etc. Therefore it couldn’t import adequate supplies in December and January. It begged the MoP to request the Ministry of Finance (MoF) to clear its debt. But the two ministers, Khaqan Abbasi and Ishaq Dar, were either squabbling (Dar has nominated an advisor to the MoP without Abbasi’s approval) or too busy doing their own thing (Dar is jetting around the world negotiating loans and aid and launching bonds while Abbasi is upgrading his privately owned Air Blue airline). Both gentlemen were summoned by the prime minister to explain their conduct. Abbasi argues that a spike in consumer demand in January owing to a reduction in petrol prices created the problem. He also claims he was helpless because Dar controls the purse strings and hasn’t responded to several SOS messages sent by PSO and MoP to clear dues of about Rs 50 billion. Dar claims he coughed up Rs 17.5 billion in January but cannot continuously be expected to bail out all the public sector enterprises that are caught in the vicious circle of circular debt caused by their inefficiency and corruption and also abide by the terms and conditions of the aid donors to cut expenditures and reduce the fiscal deficit.

Whatever the merit of their explanations, the public is mad as hell. At the very least, it wants ministerial heads to roll. But that’s not the way the prime minister and Punjab chief minister work. When something goes wrong, the fall guys are always bureaucrats, never ministers. One reason is the overt reliance of the Sharifs on the bureaucracy, rather than the ministers, to run government. Another is the abysmal level of incompetence of most ministers in the cabinet. This is a direct consequence of the prime ministerial system of government that compels the prime minister to appoint parliamentarians (whose “expertise” is limited to buying votes and excelling at corrupt practices) to the cabinet rather than the best subject-experts and technocrats available in the market as under a directly elected presidential system.

In essence, the PMLN government has inherited the problem of circular debt in the energy sector from the Zardari government that didn’t address it in time. But it is also true to say that the Zardari government was caught unawares by the spike in oil prices and the shortsightedness of the previous Shaukat Aziz/Musharraf regime that didn’t enhance the capacity of the energy sector despite a growing economy. The people chucked out Asif Zardari’s PPP at the last elections because of mismanaging the economy in general and electricity shortages in particular. Now they are not likely to forget or forgive Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN in a hurry for the continuing “load-shedding” and petrol shortages.

Many months have passed since Mr Sharif promised to “audit” the performance of the ministers. But the government is still stumbling from crisis to crisis, in the process discrediting one minister after another. Khwaja Asif and Nisar Ali Khan are already on the mat for the deterioration of civil military relations and internal security respectively. Rana Sanaullah and Shabaz Sharif cannot shake off the Model Town massacre. Ishaq Dar and Khaqan Abbasi have now been tarred by the energy crisis. But, at the end of the day, the buck stops at the prime minister. This is his “dream team” and it has become a “nightmare”. Come election time, and he will have to pay for the sins of omission and commission of his ministers, just like Asif Zardari did for those of his two prime ministers. Incompetence and inefficiency, no less than corruption, is now in the gun sights of the public.

To be sure, Mr Sharif has survived Imran Khan’s destabilizing “dharna”. And he has finally pulled out all the stops to try and deal with the menace of terrorism. But it is the health of the economy that impinges on the suffering and welfare of the people. If Mr Sharif doesn’t pull up his ministers quickly, all the MOUs and IMFs won’t be able to stop Humpty Dumpty on the wall from having a great fall!

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.