VIEW: The cabinet reshuffle —Dr Syed Mansoor Hussain - Monday, February 21, 2011

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I totally accept the proposition that the problems faced by Pakistan are of such complexity that even the best group of ‘managers’ would have a hard time fixing things but what we are seeing is a total lack of direction and a complete concentration on short-term political gain

The federal cabinet was recently reshuffled, downsized, right-sized or just pruned. Whatever, but still we do not have a minister for three important portfolios, Petroleum, Water and Power and Foreign Affairs. An oversight or a deliberate political manoeuvre, that remains to be seen. When ministers were appointed for Postal Affairs and Minority Affairs but not for these important positions, then one must presume that either the changes were made in a hurry without proper planning or else there is more to it than meets the eye.

Of course all this was not about saving money. It could have been a response to PML-N’s demands in its 10 points, but clearly it did not satisfy Mr Nawaz Sharif and he has already declared his intention to start a ‘mass movement’ against the PPP government. Could it then be about corruption? Well, it could, but considering who was fired by whom, it brings to mind the old saying about the ‘kettle calling the pot black’. If it was about ‘good governance’, then the less said the better.

And I have a feeling that with the passage of time, the total number of ministerial appointments will slowly creep up to pretty close to what it was before the recent pruning. So then what was all this really about? Not being privy to the thinking of the real power behind these changes, all I can do is speculate. However, as a person who has consistently supported the present democratic setup and hopes that it will survive whatever threats it faces from the ‘usual suspects’, I am considerably disappointed. The choices of the ‘new faces’ as well as the reshuffled portfolios inspire little confidence as far as corruption or good governance is concerned.

Though I must admit that the recent behaviour of the former foreign minister has justified the decision to remove him from his position, the minister for Water and Power should however have been fired quite a while ago when he claimed that load shedding would end in a few months and it did not. Why he continued to hold that portfolio for this long is a mystery. And the minister for railways was reappointed when under his ministerial oversight Pakistan Railways has been pushed to the verge of bankruptcy. Perhaps he should have been given the portfolio of Postal Services since nobody can make our national postal services any worse!

All this reminds me of a recent editorial cartoon about an autocrat in the Middle East who, after seeing the conniptions going on around him, decided that it was once again time to reshuffle the cabinet. Now I do not think that this cabinet reshuffle in Pakistan was in any way related to what happened in Tunisia or in Egypt, but I wish it was. Almost everybody and his aunt will agree that Pakistan is in a bad way these days. And one would seriously hope that those who run this country might actually worry about the possibility of a ‘revolt’ of sorts if things do not start getting better and that also pretty soon.

Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, we in Pakistan have already tasted all the options available at present to the young people fighting for democracy in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. So then, where do we go from here? Clearly, the cabinet reshuffle is not going to solve any of our problems. Of course much is made of how the ‘permanent establishment’ really runs everything and how helpless our politicians are when it comes to making meaningful changes, but it would seem that the ‘establishment’ does not wish to interfere in political or economic issues any more as long as it is allowed to manage the national security agenda. This clearly leaves enough space for the political establishment to work in.

Over the last few weeks, I have had a chance to speak to a few people who have a much better handle on the inner workings of the political leadership and are generally supportive of the PPP government. None of them are enthused about what is going on and none of them think that the changes in the cabinet will lead to any important changes for the better. My fear is that the cabinet reshuffle symbolises a PPP government that is totally adrift and has neither the will nor the capability to rule the country effectively. I totally accept the proposition that the problems faced by Pakistan are of such complexity that even the best group of ‘managers’ would have a hard time fixing things but what we are seeing is a total lack of direction and a complete concentration on short-term political gain.

A defence offered in the support of the poor performance of the PPP government has been that when it came into power, most of its members were convinced that the government would not last beyond a couple of years and it almost seemed that they were waiting for that to happen. And now that they have survived for almost three years they have no idea how to go forward. There seems to be a prevailing sense of befuddlement within the PPP at how they managed to survive this long and perhaps collectively they are still hoping that the ‘establishment’ will step in and send them all home and save them from the embarrassment of having to face an irate electorate two years hence.

Personally, I am convinced that there are enough devoted and competent people within the PPP that if given a chance and proper support they could actually make things better. I am also sure that the ‘establishment’ will actually support such an honest attempt and is perhaps even hoping for it to happen. But it seems that the government is still concerned primarily with cosmetic rather than meaningful change. What the PPP hierarchy must understand is that change does not necessarily signify progress and sometimes it is just a sign of confusion.

The writer has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at

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