Shehbaz Sharif has formed a Cabinet, though it is not finished being sworn in. Perhaps it is symptomatic that the Cabinet ministers are not as important as the parties to which they belong. While this is clearly the national government of everybody-less-PTI that Shehbaz had mentioned before ousting the PTI government, it is probably not the Ministry of All The Talents that has been the will o’the wisp sought by the establishment.
Perhaps it should be remembered that the government has only been formed for the remainder of the present Parliament, which means that it has about 17 months at the most before elections are held. If Imran Khan and the PTI create sufficient pressure for fresh polls, there will be an early dissolution, but because the Election Commission of Pakistan has only now begun the task of delimitation of all constituencies, polls cannot take place before the autumn. It might be even a little later, because once the ECP has completed its task, it is upto the Parliament to pass enabling legislation. This may end up as the most significant of the electoral reforms the erstwhile opposition had promised before it took office.
The government has thus been formed to last at least eight or nine months, and may go the full course before then. If it seems the PTI is likely to win the next election, the whole government will try to prolong its tenure, otherwise, if either the PPP or the PML(N) sees victory, the party which sees defeat will try and drag its feet.
Another issue with the present government is that it is a coalition, perhaps the first true coalitions since Yousaf Reza Gilani’s first Cabinet in 2008 included PML(N) ministers. Their resignation within weeks reflected that the two parties are natural rivals. At that time, elections were distant, so there was not that incentive for splitting apart. However, the PML(N) Ministers did suffer a problem peculiar to ministers in a coalition headed by someone from another party, that of divided loyalty.
When a party wins, and the party leader heads the government formed, there is no such division. Loyalty to the party leader means loyalty to the PM, and vice versa. However, in the present Cabinet, not even the PML(N) is free from such a division, even though the President of the party heads the Cabinet, because the real leader of their party, Nawaz Sharif, is not just out of the Cabinet and out of Parliament, but out of the country.
However, Shehbaz may find that his ministers do not back him up as indefatigably as he might wish. The purpose of his government is to return to business as usual. For that, a narrative to counter the PTI’s is needed, and depends virtually entirely on economic performance.
While the PML(N) has this problem of its head our of the Cabinet, the PPP is likely to face the same dilemma. Asif Ali Zardari, is not joining, for it seems inappropriate for a former President to join a Cabinet headed by someone else. Many would argue that even if the President heads the Cabinet himself, it would remain inappropriate. That also might be the reason why former PM Shahid Khaqan Abbassi has not accepted office in the Cabinet.
However, appropriateness is not necessarily a guide. Former Speakers Dr Fehmida Mirza and Fakhar Imam both accepted Cabinet slots in the previous government. The Speakership is apparently in something of a grey area, with former PPP PM Raja Pervez Ashraf apparently seeing nothing wrong with taking the job.
The Foreign Ministry is the centre of a step-down, with former Minister Hina Rabbani Khar accepting the Ministry of State, loss less than nine years after having held the full charge. She had got the office when the Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, left the Gilani Cabinet to join the PTI. It remains to be seen how she manages her position now that Bilawal has office as Foreign Minister, but as Minister of state in-charge, she does not seem under much restriction.
Bilawal’s taking office has a certain poignance. Bilawal’s maternal grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, held office from June 1963 to August 1966. His mother also held it during her first government, though Iqbal Akhund was PM’s Advisor, making her only technically in-charge as PM.
One problem is that of ideology. Politicians like slogans; now the government may not know which ones to raise. The PPP in particular is going to find the going hard. Of course, having abandoned almost every element of its original ideology, it will be able to make the necessary twists and turns to justify whatever course of action is taken.
By retaining the Finance and Planning portfolios, the PML(N) has taken responsibility for the economy. However, the PPP has got the Commerce, Water Resources, and Industries and Production portfolios. Yet of the three great offices of state, finance, interior and foreign affairs, the PML(N) has given the PPP only foreign affairs.
That will be a key area, as the outgoing PTI had already riled Pakistan’s friends even before the ‘foreign conspiracy’ claim that left the USA not knowing what to do. That apart, the PML(N) has selected tried and tested faces, former members of the previous PML(N) Cabinet, and that too in their previous portfolios.
However, the prize Interior portfolio has been given to Rana Sanaullah, whose only previous ministerial experience has been as Punjab Law Minister. He is the person who will have to handle cases, if any, against Imran Khan and any other PTI leaders who may come under the radar.
The PML(N) has kept the Defence portfolio, thus ensuring that at the ministerial level, it has not left foreign relations entirely to the PPP. However, BAP has rertained the defence production portfolio, though Zubeida Jalal has now given way to Israrullah Tareen.
Two members of Imran’s cabinet, both nominees of allies, have retained their seats, Tariq Bashir Cheema of the PML(Q) and Aminul Haque of the MQM(P). Syed Amin’s transition has been so smooth, that he did not even change portfolio, and the gap between the two Cabinets of about a week was too short to make returning to the Cabinet noticeable to anyone.
The new government is operating on one major constraint: it must do something abot the economy. Apart from Miftah Ismail, who holds a PhD in Finance, the PML(N) has as Minister of State Dr Ayesh Ghaus Pasha, who has been Punjab Finance Minister. She does have a seat in Parliament, which Miftah does not. He didn’t the last time he was sworn, and though he had six months to find a seat back in 2018, he didn’t, as the government’s term ran out first.
He now has six months again to find a seat. He tried earlier this year in the by-election caused by Faisal Vawda going to the Senate, but lost to the PPP’s Qadir Patel, who is in the Cabinet.
Shehbaz has not only got his hands full, but he might not get much help from his Cabinet. As a matter of fact, that was how it played out in Punjab when he was Chief Minister. His management style does not have him delegating much. Some would accuse him of being a micromanager
However, Shehbaz may find that his ministers do not back him up as indefatigably as he might wish. The purpose of his government is to return to business as usual. For that, a narrative to counter the PTI’s is needed, and depends virtually entirely on economic performance. Assuming such performance, there will have to be a unified message coming from the ministers. But will Shehbaz get that support? Only time will tell.