The First Fifty Days

After a relatively smooth transition, Shaukat Aziz completes his first 50 days in office on or about today, time enough to assess the trend of his governance mode and analyze thereof what we can expect (of him and the country) in the future. In an eloquent recent article he has spelt out his vision of Pakistan for the future and where all he intends to focus concentrated attention not only to alleviate the many prevailing miseries of the people but provide meaningful economical emancipation on the way to becoming “Pakistan Inc”.

I, for one, was not very comfortable with Shaukat Aziz becoming PM when he did and it has nothing to do with his capabilities and/or competence, he is inherently qualified to be a PM of Pakistan of any country. And as far as name recognition among the world’s elite goes, only Ms Benazir and Pervez Musharraf have greater potency. Shaukat’s ambitions of becoming PM have always been in line with his abilities to be PM, my worries were viz, (1) whether he could contend with the abnormal circumstances prevailing politically without the cover of military rule and (2) concern for his personal security. A Deputy PM can function as the effective head of the government without having to pander to political compromises, a period of six months to a year with someone running political cover for him would have been ideal. As it is, during the technical nuance of waiting to be elected as an MNA, my worst fears almost came true, he narrowly missed coming to grief at the hands of a suicide bomber. Like every human being the President may have some weaknesses, decisiveness is certainly not one of them. Instead of “creeping change” he decided to go the whole hog. Pervez Musharraf kept the choice close to his chest but it did not surprise me one bit when he installed Shaukat as the PM-heir apparent, it was always on the cards since Oct 12, 1999.

While in theory I was right about there being a “gestation period”, in practice, I was out of sync with realpolitik Pakistan. The President had it right, Shaukat Aziz had to sit physically in the PM’s chair to be credible about his authority, not become a lame-duck even before he was sworn in, as was my friend Zafarullah Khan Jamali. The President’s personality and psyche will not allow him to share his authority with anyone, least of a politician. On the other hand, Pervez Musharraf tends to delegate command to those he trusts implicitly. Would any minister now dare cross Shaukat Aziz the way they thumbed their noses at Jamali? While the President can be approached on issues that he feels need his direct input, the PM will not be frozen out. A technocrat of his own choice, having impeccable foreign corporate training and proven loyalty, Pervez Musharraf has clearly given Shaukat Aziz more and more slack in day-to-day governance. That is as it should be if the PM has to successfully govern a country that badly needs good governance.

Shaukat Aziz’s performance has been above par for the past 50 days, that is no revelation. An affable personality with tremendous personal PR, this consummate corporate being has five years of extraordinary On-the-Job Training (OJT) under his belt as the Finance Minister of Pakistan in an environment of authoritarian rule where he was accountable to nobody but the military ruler. He is relatively politically inexperienced but he couldn’t have got to where he has without having a politician’s basic traits (including the instinct of survival). As his own Finance Minister he has full control over the plums to be disbursed to keep Parliamentarians waiting on their hind legs in anticipation. There are political hiccups to contend with as the quorum problem has shown. A little more than half of the treasury benches are disaffected being out of office of sorts. While Ch Shujaat Hussain was magnanimous in acting as the PM “in-between”, the withdrawal symptoms after he left PM’s office will have made Ch Sahib acutely aware that maybe he should have been less generous. Professing benign ignorance about the “quorum issue”, Ch Shujaat has taken steps to correct the lack thereof, including sacrificing Nasrullah Dreshak as Chief Whip and putting for the unguided missile Sher Afgan in place.

In keeping with the underlying theme of Shaukat’s recent article, there is an attempt to instill objective-orientation in the Ministries, each having given definite targets and expected performance levels thereof. The endless huge rambling Cabinet meetings may not be a thing of the past but they will be lesser in number and more focused on the agenda. The PM’s power-meetings include never more than 7-8 persons (including 2/3 members of the PM’s staff), the meetings are far more objective and work-oriented. While nothing new for a corporate environment, the attempt to transfer corporate standards successfully into the bureaucratic world of civil administration so early in his tenure is commendable. Whether the Ministries can be reformed and energize this sense of urgency and focus into the departments under them will be the acid test. Bureaucrats are notorious for shelving all they can, for as long as they can they will have to be kept under constant monitoring. Shaukat Aziz will have to shed his “Mr Nice Guy” mantle to enforce the accountability he has promised for individual and collective performance. Another 50 days is not that far away to find out whether he is ready to be unpopular. Independently rich before he came to the Finance Ministry, Shaukat Aziz has shown no inclination of adding to his wealth in his five years as Finance Minister, in a corruption-ridden third world country like Pakistan that is a huge plus. One can have reservations for some of the appointments in the banking world but generally merit has taken precedence over favourtism. If he can really contain nepotism (no one can really end it), Pakistan will be well on its way to economic and political emancipation. However he must watch out some of his friends who may use his name and connections thereof bribery, nepotism etc scandals are now merging e.g. PIA’s purchase of Dash-8 instead of the SAAB 2000 will certainly be investigated by future governments. So will the lucrative “consultancies” that some known lobbyists acquired fairly recently after he took office. The habits of those used to bribing their way into lucrative contracts die hard, viz (1) they never change their spots (2) their modus operandi and (3) they always flock together. In this country such things cannot remain a secret for long, Shaukat Aziz cannot afford to be seen condoning any weakness among those he has regular contact with.

In Shaukat’s 5000 word article, less than 200 words are devoted to foreign policy, probably convenient. The PM is smart enough to know that discretion is the better part of survival. With Shaukat concentrating on the domestic economic agenda, the President has external relations sector firmly in his grasp. On controversial issues about water-sharing and proposed dams, Shaukat is again on the periphery of matters, as in defence matters and homeland security, even though for face-saving, lip-service may be the order of the day. There is no way I can imagine a hands-on Pervez Musharraf retiring himself from such issues while he is in the chair, whether or not he takes off his uniform. Shaukat Aziz must also watch out for those he cuts off from living off the lard of the land, how long before the disaffected run to the President to whisper how the PM’s performance is eroding his popularity within the country and his stature abroad?

While it would not be fair to hold the PM to every word of the promises made in his recent article, one should be honest about analyzing his performance against the objectives articulated therein. Even if most of the targets are not achieved, a decent enough try at achieving them must get the support of all those who love Pakistan. God knows we need a sincere and honest attempt at alleviating our problems, paraphrasing the saying in the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA)’s Ingall Hall, “while what is achieved does matter, it matters far more as to how much honest effort has been put in to achieve the objectives” in place of “what happens to you does not matter, what matters is how you behave while it is happening”. While 50 days is too early to make a judgment, at this stage Shaukat is certainly trying to make his rhetoric match his deeds, we will keep watching over his shoulder to see whether he will keep to it.