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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Here comes Hammad Azhar and the challenges awaiting the new Finance Minister

The author highlights the economic challenges waiting for Hammad Azhar, the new Finance Minister of Pakistan. While appreciating Hammad Azhar, the author states that the Finance Minister and his team have performed well but the last few hurdles facing the economy should also be overcome with full dedication.

Pakistan’s vivacious media, over the last few weeks, hasn’t commented more extensively on any other topic other than Prime Minister Imran Khan’s chameleonic transfiguring of his Cabal. Several ministers, top civil servants, and Police chiefs have been changed using former US President Donald Trump’s template.

In subcontinental aphorism—India’s Nehru, during his illustrious political career, didn’t change his ‘Dhotees’ that frequently as the Skipper of ‘Tabdeeli Sarkaar’ mutated his seemingly atrophic team.

He has even tried ‘two wrongs to make one right’—but even that hasn’t worked as anticipated. However, one such change is being appreciated—even by his staunchest critics. Hammad Azhar—a 40-year old emerging politician from Lahore—with a good pedigree, has already made his mark through working in diverse ministerial roles over the past thirty months.

Read more: PM appoints Hammad Azhar as new finance minister

Hammad got his opportunity when the country’s thrusted upon/lackluster Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Sheikh lost his Senate election against Yousuf Raza Multani—a former Prime Minister ignominiously disqualified by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, for blatant corruption and abuse of power.

For the ruling PTI, this wasn’t only a gigantic political defeat, but also losing against an infamous contender was ‘une insulte a la blessure’. Nonetheless, in my pedantic slant, it has turned out to be a ‘blessing in disguise’—not only for burgeoning Hammad Azhar but also for the tenderfoot PTI.

Read more: Pakistan on the road to economic recovery amid global recession: Hammad Azhar

Hafeez Sheikh’s performance

Conversely, Dr. Sheikh was more of an academic researcher than a political economist. I was working for General Musharraf as Media Consultant (2000-02) when Sheikh Sb was parachuted into Pakistan to lead the PMLQ administration—he had nothing to offer!

I had just completed my three years as Executive Consultant for Higher Education (2005-08), to the Punjab Government, when Dr. Sheikh was hired again as Finance Minister—this time by the Zardari-led PPP.

How could Hafeez Sheikh win a Senate seat against his former boss YR Gilani? We all watched on TV—after losing against Gilani—Sheikh was walking alongside Gilani through the isles of the Parliament hall, like a wounded fox—whereas the victorious Gilani was trying his best to stroll like Hannibal Barca after winning the Second Punic War (218-201 BC).

Read more: Senate Elections: Abdul Hafeez Shaikh’s nomination challenged

To be honest—Dr. Sheikh shouldn’t have been inducted into IK’s Cabinet, in the first place. For the simple reason—Sheikh was the architect of Pakistan’s economic collapse under Zardaris, as was the roguish Ishaq Daar, as a ‘chef escroc’ under Sharifs. Both Sheikh and Daar escalated astronomic inflation to unleash a meteoric price-hike.

Dr. Sheikh’s nearly two-year performance was dismal, but it questions the commonsense of all those who catapulted him into Islamabad despite his two shambolic performances—under PMLQ and ZPPP.

Here it reminds me of a befitting observation by the twentieth-century celebrated American author, Ernest Hemingway—” The first panacea for a mismanaged nation is inflation of the currency, the second is war; both bring temporary prosperity, but leave the nation in ruins. Nevertheless, both are the refuge of political and economic opportunists.”

Read more: Pakistan’s economic recovery remains fragile, World Bank

‘An Everest of economic rubble’

Regrettably, the half a dozen finance/economic ministers Pakistan tried during the last four decades, with exception of Ghulam Ishaq Khan (1977-85) and Dr. Mehbub ul Haq (1985-88)—all proved to be junkyard debris. The politicians such as Yasin Wattoo, Ehsan ul Haq Paracha, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, and Ishaq Daar knew everything but political economy.

We all sympathize with PM Imran Khan who in 2018 inherited an Everest of economic rubble amassed by this political ‘cowboys’—for which the nation has given the incumbent government a fair amount of time, but now it’s time to show the results.

Read more: Why Pakistan’s Economy is fragile after 72 years?

Hammad Azhar has sound education, sufficient skillsets, and a suitable toolkit—all he lacked was a mandate and power to execute. He has got that, NOW.

Being the son of Mian Azhar—a politician that has no blemishes on his character, a down-to-earth politician and an upright businessman who at times resisted Lahori Sharifs’ arbitrary ruling style—Hammad needs to demonstrate a decent league in planning and delivering the greater good for the larger numbers.

Read more: Pakistan economy is growing despite region’s ‘negative growth’: Hammad

Full autonomy 

Hammad Azhar studied the political economy of developing nations at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. At SOAS he may have interacted with eminent academics such as Prof Booth, Prof Harrigan, Prof Smith, Prof Hakimian, Prof Fine, Prof Ash, and so forth—whose extensive research in political economy is calibrated as world-class.

Hammad is lucky enough—he is not working under a PM who would ever ask him to do wrong things, let alone stealing money from the till-machine, for him and his elaborate family.

He will have full autonomy in planning and actioning the tasks required to harness the national economy. He will have little pressure from his cohorts, comrades, or constituents—to bend the rules.

Read more: Hammad Azhar’s portfolio changed: Dr. Hafeez Shaikh threatened to resign?

Challenges for Hammad Azhar

Hammad Azhar is young, energetic, and clear-headed, however, he has enormous challenges before him—mostly in microeconomics. He immediately needs to implement a successful ‘Ramazaan Package’ to alleviate the underprivileged/Covid-hit masses.

Another challenge Hammad Azhar will have to deal with is the rocketing cost of living; for which he needs effective liaison, cooperation, and coordination skills to keep provincial stakeholders on board, especially of Sindh and Balochistan.

He needs to address the existential circular debt which has become a bottomless pit for the national resources. He must form a future-driven management team—instead of relying too much upon the aging bureaucrats.

Read more: Circular debt paralyzes Pakistan’s power sector

Hammad Azhar will have to appoint well-qualified Additional and Joint Secretaries who have the ambition to deliver during the last 5-10 years of their career. He will have to outsmart two ostensible rodeos—Governor State Bank, and Chairman FBR.

He should not waste his precious time to frequently appear in TV talk-shows, nor should outsource PR campaigns to part-time parrots—no names!

Another Herculean challenged before Hammad Azhar is to address the remaining 15-20% of FATF objections. During the last eighteen months or so—he and his dedicated team have performed adequately, the last few remaining hurdles must also be overcome with continuity, commitment, and due diligence.

Read more: Pakistan is committed to complete all points of FATF action plan, Hammad Azhar

The Rishi Sunak of Pakistan?    

As an emerging political economist, Hammad has already learned to drive in the middle lane of the long and rough road—if he carries on like this, hopefully, the nation will see some encouraging results after the next two years.

If he is given full support by the Cabinet, the Parliament, the Establishment, and the mercurial media—I am seeing in him a Rishi Sunak of Pakistan. And if he delivers even 50% of what expected, let him carry on for another 5-10 years.

He has the ability, capacity, and will to perform as Manmohan Singh did in India—first as Finance Minister (1991-96) and then as Prime Minister (2004-14).

The author is a London-based Analyst in South Asian and Middle Eastern Security. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.