‘The hike is set to unleash unbearable spiral of inflation’

Most parliamentary reporters seriously expected Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to attend the National Assembly sitting Thursday and deliver some assuaging speech after the announcement of another price hike in petroleum products late Wednesday night.

But not more than 35 members were present in the House, when I decided to start writing this column after 5:00pm. Finance Minister Miftah Ismail and Ms Ayesha Ghaus Pasha, the state minister of the same portfolio, had also left meanwhile. One is yet not sure whether they went home or needed to attend some business in their chambers. The deserted look of the house also made me imagine a no-show by the prime minister.

It wasn’t merely the announcement of another price hike that motivated most parliamentary reporters to anticipate the appearance of Shehbaz Sharif during Thursday’s sitting of the National Assembly. He might have felt the need to attend the same; also to offset the impact Syed Khursheed Shah had created by delivering an embarrassing speech in the House Wednesday.

The member from Sukkur, Syed Khursheed Shah, is a highly experienced parliamentarian.

Being a hardcore loyalist of Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), he has consistently been returning to the national assembly since 1990. He is a consummate politician instinctively able to fathom the message politicians convey with their conduct.

Wednesday, he took the floor to candidly admit that by not devotedly attending the National Assembly proceedings, Shehbaz Sharif and the rest of his high-profile ministers were seriously damaging the prestige and relevance of the directly elected house of parliament. The budget session is always considered the most dynamic event, where the government needs to stay vigilant, almost around the clock.

Yet the ministers, lamented Syed Khursheed Shah, don’t feel interested. Perhaps they feel easy and relaxed due to the fact that 123 members of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have not been attending the assembly sittings after posting ‘collective resignations’ since early April.

When the ‘cat’ is away, the rest of the members also lose interest. And almost each sitting of the national assembly, since the start of the budget session, had mostly been held with obvious lack of quorum.

After honestly pointing out blatant dereliction of duty by the government of these days, Syed Khursheed Shah, who himself is an important federal minister, vowed to start pointing out the lack of quorum himself, if the government didn’t change its indifference towards parliamentary proceedings. His threat also made us presume that it might work like a wake-up call for Shehbaz Sharif and his ministers.

While writing this column, though, I am forced to recall that Shehbaz Sharif preferred to govern more like a technocrat rather than a politician. He had savored two consecutive terms as the Chief Minister of the most populous province, Punjab, from 2008 to 2018. Throughout his rule, he seldom attended the Punjab Assembly sittings and preferred to deliver “good governance” and chase “mega projects” by exclusively relying on a peculiar cabal of “efficient bureaucrats.”

He is essentially addicted to hands-on sort of ‘governance’ but yet not able to reconcile with the reality that as the Prime Minister he now leads a coalition of eleven parties. The ‘top-down’ model of administration doesn’t work in such an environment. In the absence of a noisy and crowded opposition, he rather needs to invent a plethora of gimmicks to sustain the illusion that Pakistan still has a “vibrant parliament,” asserting full command and control over all matters related to governance.

Shehbaz Sharif could still have gotten away with habitual disregard of an elected house, if his government appeared ‘delivering’ on different fronts. Since taking over around three months ago, however, the unity or the coalition government led by him had rather been associated with doom and gloom. It will indeed be unfair to blame him for that; honest observers genuinely feel that after realizing the inevitability of its fall, the previous government deliberately abandoned the task of addressing developments clearly indicating a fast approaching melting down of our economy.

No wonder, the accumulated supply-chain issues brought back long hours without electricity immediately after Shehbaz Sharif took over as the Prime Minister. As if the lack of electricity in a record-setting season of unbearable summer were not enough, the prices of petroleum prices also started to hit the roof due to Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

So many things on our economic front had begun traveling to doom and gloom during the last three months of the previous government. Instead of wisely addressing them, the former Prime Minister opted to look ‘good’ to people by freezing the prices of electricity and petroleum products. His decision clearly violated commitments, one of his finance ministers, Dr Hafiz Shaikh had made to the International Monetary Fund in early 2019 for receiving an aggregate amount of 6 Billion US dollars in various installments until the September of 2022.

The previous government continued to heavily subsidise the petroleum products to keep people happy and content. Finally we almost depleted our already limited reserves. And the IMF firmly refused to provide funds to sustain our government’s reckless looking ‘generosity’ to its people. Even the oil rich “brothers” of Pakistan started to press that the government should at least recover the actual cost of providing petroleum products to gas stations. That compelled the Shehbaz government to shock people by massively increasing the prices of petroleum products.

The last announcement was made late Wednesday night. In around two months a liter of petrol now costs 85 more rupees than it used to be until late April. The hike is set to unleash the unbearable spiral of inflation, which the shirtless millions have no means to cope with.

Still the government replacing Imran Khan had no story to induce hope and clearly seems desperate to avert ‘default’ like Sri Lanka had recently suffered. The IMF also is not, yet, feeling comfortable with all the unpopular decisions that the Shehbaz Sharif led government had announced until now. It keeps asking, “do more,” and the unity or the coalition government that had replaced Imran Khan certainly appears stuck in a trap it had walked into gleefully, hardly some weeks ago.

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