Cabinet or a deck of cards? | Dawn

The following article was published in Dawn on April 25, 2021 at the following link.

MORE than halfway into his five-year term, Prime Minister Imran Khan reshuffled his cabinet for the sixth time on April 16. This was the second major reshuffle which changed the portfolios of six ministers. Earlier, a reshuffle had affected some nine portfolios in April 2019 — barely eight months after he had formed the government and inducted a 16-member cabinet of ministers on Aug 20, 2018. Today, only eight ministers from the first cabinet retain the portfolios assigned in 2018. Most of the reshuffles involved just a change in portfolio; only two ministers — Amir Kayani and Dr Hafeez Shaikh — had to leave the cabinet.

Keeping in view the persistent demands of coalition partners and political considerations within the party, there will certainly be new inductions in the cabinet in the near future and the portfolios may once again be reshuffled. At least one special assistant to the prime minister and some other high-profile technocrats have recently been elected on PTI tickets to the Senate, and it is quite likely that these persons may be given berths in the cabinet with the formal designation of minister.

Reshuffling in cabinets is not unusual in democracies, especially in a parliamentary form of government where the prime minister is all the time under pressure to keep legislators from his party and among his allies in good humour. The task becomes all the more onerous when the parliamentary majority is thin as is the case at present in Pakistan.

The frequent reshuffling of ministers is a manifestation of a deeper problem.

This act of doling out cabinet positions out of political considerations leads to the strange phenomenon of ‘two cabinets’. One cabinet consists of ministers and ministers of state, all of whom are elected but most of them having very little knowledge or competence to run the ministries they are supposed to manage.

The ‘second cabinet’ consists of unelected technocrats with hardly any affiliation to the party and they are given the designation of either advisers or special assistants to the prime minister. Many of these advisers or special assistants are publicly notified as holding the status of a minister or minister of state. However, despite such notifications, the Constitution and the Rules of Business do not allow the exercise of executive authority by these unelected advisers and special assistants. This technical ‘difficulty’ had led to the appointment of an unelected Hafeez Shaikh as finance minister for six months before he could seek election.

The same ‘difficulty’ has led to the induction of Shaukat Tarin, another unelected technocrat, as the new finance minister. All these efforts to go around the rules are meant to conform to at least the letter of the law if not spirit till the time the matter is again challenged before a superior court which then stops the government from using advisers and special assistants as de facto ministers.

Granted that the prime minister has the privilege to induct, fire or change the portfolio of any minister, some serious questions arise after these repeated and frequent reshufflings. For example, what useful purpose do these reshufflings serve? If it is the performance of a minister which leads to his or her transfer to another ministry, it hardly makes any sense. Bad performance should lead to showing the door to the minister, not a transfer to another ministry.

We understand and it is commendable that the prime minister has devised a system of performance evaluation of ministers in which targets are set for them after securing their agreement and their performance is evaluated each quarter. If a minister fails to achieve a majority of the targets in one ministry, how will he do better in another ministry? Moving ministers around adversely affects the work of ministries also because frequent transfers negatively impact the continuity of policies and projects.

Apparently, the shuffling of ministers is considered a useful tool for creating a public impression that the chief executive is vigilant, dynamic and in control. There should be no need to employ such a tool if there are solid achievements to showcase.

The frequent reshuffling of ministers and the creation of ‘two cabinets’ are a manifestation of a deeper problem. Political parties generally lack competent and knowledgeable elected representatives who are groomed for governance. Our elected legislators may be very good at marketing themselves in their constituencies through their hard work and maintaining an excellent constituency relationship. They may also manage their relationship with the party leadership very well which pays dividend when the party gives them a ticket to contest elections; the strength of the support base of the party in a constituency is usually the difference between winning and losing an election. Where many elected legislators fail is in the knowledge and experience of governance as well as training. Despite their individual success in elections and the success of their party, they are unable to add value to the ability of the party to govern the country or province.

Preparing for governing the country, a province, district or city is where the political parties of Pakistan have generally failed. There is absolutely no system within the parties to train their members, officers or legislators let alone have in place arrangements to develop the capacity of legislators for a potential role in running a ministry.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn in a recent conversation with a former member of the Indonesian election commission that political parties in Indonesia are obliged by law to spend 60 per cent of their income on the ‘political education’ of their members, office-bearers and legislators. Political education is meant to prepare the politicians for roles as legislators or ministers. Pakistani political parties, in general, make no such effort to train their legislators and potential ministers. A shadow cabinet can create a very useful system for potential ministers to learn about ministries and make a transition to government when the time comes.

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