‘The VVIP but mysterious welcome’

Enduring the perpetual instability of our political structures and appearances, I often recall the opening scene of Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece: “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Its hero has lost hope after many months of fighting a fatal disease, but his companion still wants to cheer him up by pep talking. Feeling offended, he cynically points up his finger to the sky to make her realise that vultures have already begun to hover above them. That clearly indicated the sneaking death.
Pakistan is known for having a specific breed of human shaped vultures. We call them “technocrats.” They spend most of their time in foreign countries and make millions while working as consultants or bankers etc. The real controllers of our political scene often feel forced to motivate their return to the country, “to fix things in the motherland” that politicians are blamed for turning dysfunctional due to inherent greed and incompetency. Once convinced, they return to form a “caretaker government” with total support of the military elite.

Dr Hafeez Shaikh, an economist with deep connections with the IMF and the World Bank, belongs to the same category of technocrats. General Musharraf first utilised his talents way back in the early 2000s after taking over in October 1999. A banker, Mohammad Ahmad Mian Soomro was then appointed as the Governor of Sindh. Like Hafeez Shaikh, he too was born in Jacobabad, Sindh, and scion of an elitist family. Soomro made Shaikh his advisor and assigned him the task of “regularising and increasing” the income streams of the Sindh government.

After the election of 2002, Shaikh was brought to Islamabad after getting elected to the Senate. The then financial czar, Shaukat Aziz, never felt comfortable with his reach and manipulative skills. He almost sidelined him. Yet Mr Shaikh preferred to quietly wait for his time to shine. Things started to turn topsy-turvy for the Musharraf regime with the advent of 2007, however. Finally the General-President had to resign and Shaikh also left the country after his fall.

After spending two years in the government, the PPP government replacing him, started to feel overwhelmed with economic challenges it faced. The then President Asif Ali Zardari was persuaded to approach ‘the wizard from Jacobabad’ and he was appointed as the Finance Minister to satisfy the IMF, pressing for “documenting the economy” and enforcing mass scale sales tax. Sheikh tried hard to deliver on these counts, but could not deal with the blowback of it. He eventually resigned, leaving the job unfinished.

The Imran government had begun to face a similar sort of dilemma, hardly a few months after its establishment. Its Finance Minister, Asad Umar, who also relished the reputation of a successful corporate wizard, failed to generate a feel-good mood. He also resisted approaching the IMF to seek even breathing space before bouncing back to life.

To prepare its first budget, the Imran government desperately sought the assistance of Hafeez Shaikh and he seemingly delivered by quickly signing an agreement with the IMF, spread to three years. But the initiatives he took started to upset many members of the national assembly, who had reached the National Assembly during the election of 2018 on PTI tickets. In private they started complaining in whispers that the “IMF-dictated” policies were alienating and annoying their voters, not being able to cope with the relentless wave of the inflation Sheikh was accused to have unleashed.

Being a snooty ‘technocrat,’ the finance minister never cared to assuage their burning hearts by engaging them in solace providing conversations. He strongly felt that most people elected to the assemblies are not familiar with even the basics of economics. The “Boston Brahmin” in him couldn’t waste time in talking to them.

The burning hearts cunningly waited for their time to strike and they finally had it when Imran Khan nominated Dr Hafeez Sheikh to reach the Senate on a seat from Islamabad in March 2021. After many years of spending time in the wilderness, a former Prime Minister from a veteran political family of Multan, Yousaf Raza Gilani, suddenly surfaced to compete with him. His party, the PPP, didn’t have the winning numbers. But the rest of the opposition parties gleefully owned him. The rebels from within the PTI joined the game as well and taking advantage of the ‘secret voting’, managed the stunning defeat of a candidate nominated by the then ruling party. After the said defeat, Dr Hafeez Shaikh opted to leave the country for another time.

But sometime early this week, he had discreetly landed in Karachi. After landing he was quietly ‘escorted’, from the tarmac, to an unknown destination. Presumably the corruption-fighting outfit with draconian powers, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), also had some questions to ask from Dr Hafeez Shaikh. But before his landing, a preventive bail was quickly and quietly managed for him.

The VVIP but mysterious ‘welcome’, Dr Sheikh had relished, motivated many observers to imagine that he was rather “invited” by ultimate setters of our political scenarios. Two very recent but successive decisions by the Supreme Court, on different subjects, had already ignited rumours that the eleven-party government, led by Shehbaz Sharif, was “about to collapse in the next 48 to 72 hours.” The government seems “asking for it” by acting shy to take initiatives, considered “unavoidable” to ensure resumption of the IMF’s “support scheme” for Pakistan. The massive increase in the rates of petroleum products tops the list in this respect. But even a government with ‘heavy mandate’ and ensured to have a life of more than three years, would think twice to go for the dictated increase.

The Shehbaz government is still willing to do the needful. But instead of going for the massive increase, it wants the same to ‘stagger’ for many months to come. Meanwhile, it wants to subsidise prices of the petroleum products by finding other means to fund them. But to “reach there,” it has been pressing for “guarantees” that the current government would complete its term until August of the next year. I don’t want to name people who are approached for the coveted “guarantees.” You can easily guess.

But, so far, the coveted guarantees seem hard to get. Yet the National Assembly held another sitting Friday morning. It mostly went on without the quorum. Chaos and confusion were visibly dominating the ruling alliance members and the vibes of doom and gloom looked doubly ominous in an almost deserted House.

‘The VVIP but
mysterious welcome’

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