- Not a bad performance, over all
He wasn’t as bad at the BBC’s Hard Talk as his boss, the current prime minister, on the same programme before the elections. And Asad Umar’s innings at the famous talk show was certainly better than his stint at his main job as the finance minister.
That has led to some measure of adulation from the ruling party’s fanbase. Also, a measure of acerbic response from certain quarters. This latter isn’t from the usual suspects anymore, but also from seemingly neutral sections of the press that are finally adjusting to the nominal anti-incumbent-government position that the press usually takes.
Three points in particular have emerged as the ones most talked about in the exchange between Stephen Sackur and the finance minister.
One, is the question about the government’s financial package from the Saudi Arabian government in the aftermath of the gruesome murder of dissident journalist and columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Are you ashamed, asked Sacker in the blunt Tim Sebastian-tone that the programme has had since its launched in 1997. “I am happy to be ashamed” to be standing with a trusted ally, came the reply. Why aren’t the western leaders, like Donald Trump also ashamed, he continued. But Trump isn’t in the dock, you are, replied Sackur. Not only was the deflection easy to call out, it was also done in a crass manner. The subject of the hacking to bits of a dissident needed to be handled with more grace.
Second, was the decision of the BBC to edit out the finance minister’s reference to captured Indian naval officer Kulbhushan Yadav. After the edit was criticised on social media, the Beeb felt the need to issue a clarification: we wanted to cut the interview a bit short, so took the scissors to some parts and that we’ve kept the reference in the radio version. Furthermore, they put back the edited bit in the online version.
Now, as someone who has done video editing for a living for a short bit of time, I understand how sometimes good content has to be thrown out. But any content-aware editor should have known how close this particular reference is to the hearts of the Pakistani defence and diplomatic machine. I still won’t buy the argument that it was somehow an example of gross censorship. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have been promptly addressed, rectified, and not been the case in the radio version to begin with. However, these are my personal biases informing my judgment. Those who do view it as censorship can’t be faulted for holding that view.
Third, is the insistence by the finance minister that the rises in the fuel prices, other utilities and devaluation of the rupee were not because of the government wanting to get ready for IMF conditionalities, but something that the government did on its own. This is the aforementioned bit that was trashed endlessly by certain quarters. An absurd position to take, cried out the critics, that this misery is all self-imposed.
Now, I don’t know the specific manner in which the steps above were taken. The manner in which the rupee was devalued is the only thing I can criticise, if not the step itself. What will prevent me from joining in the bandwagon of critics is that anyone with a slight understanding of the federal government’s financial profile will know that the prices of the utilities were due for a hike since a very long time. The cost of generating and then distributing a unit of electricity is not reflected in what the consumers pay.
Similarly, debates on what the ‘real value’ of the rupee was, have been raging since some time now.
The problem with PTI and Asad Umar is that they liked taking the populist line and have now written cheques that they cannot cash. One suspects that it wasn’t even irresponsible populism on their part when they were in opposition, but actual, genuine ignorance.
Asad Umar, by some accounts, seems in out of his depth at the Q Block at the Federal Secretariat. Some on the grapevine also suggest that the fellow is now seen to be appreciating at least certain aspects of his predecessor Ishaq Dar’s management, a glimpse of which one could even see from his statements from the floor of the House.