Column | Prime Minister Imran Khan's dilemma as he doubles up as a minister

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has become the butt of ridicule over a policy flip-flop on import of sugar and cotton from India.

The economic co-ordination committee of the Cabinet headed by new Finance Minister Hammad Azhar had approved a Commerce ministry proposal to allow sugar and cotton import from India to meet the demand of consumers and textile companies.

It was seen as another sign of thaw in the frosty relationship between the two neighbours, first one being the ceasefire along the Line of Control announced by the militaries of the two countries.

But a week later the Cabinet headed by Khan decided that imports from India cannot be

permitted until India restores special privilege accorded to Jammu and Kashmir, taken away in August 2019.

But the fun started when there were revelations that the proposal itself was approved by the Prime Minister in his capacity as the Commerce Minister and sent to the Cabinet committee.

But Khan the Prime Minister could not defend the action of Khan the minister.

Satirists on television and social media poked fun at Khan, with one of them making a mock call to the Prime Minister's house to speak to the Commerce Minister but the answer coming that the latter does not live there anymore.

Back-channel diplomacy

Both India and Pakistan have been under friendly pressure from the United States, Russia and the United Arab Emirates to reduce the thaw in their ties and lot of back-channel work has gone in the past few months involving high-level officials as well as private enthusiasts, especially industrialists.

Both countries have not denied reports that the Foreign Minister of UAE Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan had vigorously worked for both sides so that the Asian neighbours take confidence-building measures.

But hawks in the Pakistani Cabinet led by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who was in the economic co-ordination committee meeting, prevailed on Khan that any economic dealing with India will allow New Delhi to get away with its new policy on Jammu and Kashmir.

When PMs handle other ministries

Like other parliamentary democracies, in India too prime ministers take charge of specific portfolios for a variety of reasons. It could be either due to the resignation or death of a minister, or it being inconvenient to go for a Cabinet reshuffle or expansion.

There are also prime ministers who are passionate about a particular subject and want to deal with it directly. Thus Jawaharlal Nehru held the External Affairs portfolio during the entire 17 years of his prime ministership.

During his brief 11-month rule, I K Gujral too held this portfolio, which he had handled earlier under prime ministers V P Singh and H D Deve Gowda. However, when Finance Minister V P Singh had serious differences with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Singh was moved to the Ministry of Defence, while the PM himself took over the Finance Ministry and even presented the budget.

Sharad Pawar's costly miss

There is one instance of a Cabinet minister, who was sent back as Chief Minister to his home state, with the PM promising not to give the portfolio to anyone else. But it had negative consequences for the minister himself.

It happened to Sharad Pawar, who was a contender for the top post in the Congress in 1991, but supported P V Narasimha Rao against Arjun Singh. Pawar became the Defence Minister and began building his support base. But in 1993 when a big earthquake hit Maharashtra, wily Rao told Pawar he should go back to the state and lead the relief efforts. Rao gave the impression that Pawar could be away for a few months and then return.

But even as Pawar was kept in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), the camps which disliked both Rao and Pawar gathered around Sonia Gandhi, who had kept away from politics till then. Even as Rao handled the defence portfolio for three years, Pawar had missed the leadership bus when Rao lost control of the Congress and soon had to part ways.

Prime Minister's prerogative

While ministers can send proposals for the consideration of the Cabinet, it is the Prime Minister who decides which item is important to be on the agenda. He takes these decisions with the assistance of the Cabinet Secretary, who is the head of the civil service, as some proposals may have to go for consultation to a few other Cabinet ministers.

But once the proposal is signed by the Prime Minister as the minister of a particular department, it is rarely rejected by the Cabinet or one of its committees.

How Manmohan Singh juggled with ministries

In 2005 when India' External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh had to resign over the controversial oil-for-food deal with Iraq which was under American sanctions, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was faced with a minister who was unhappy with the civil nuclear deal stuck with the US President George W Bush.So Natwar Singh's resignation came at a convenient time. The Prime Minister decided to keep the External Affairs portfolio with himself during the crucial negotiations carried out by the Indian nuclear and diplomatic officials with the United States.

Manmohan Singh did not know whether he could trust any other senior minister as there was intense pressure against the deal from some sections of the Congress as well as from the Left Front which offered outside support to the government. Eleven months after Natwar Singh resigned, the Prime Minister was confident the deal could not be torpedoed from within the Congress. Then he gave up the External Affairs ministry to Pranab Mukherjee who was the Defence Minister.

Yet there was a flip side. When Manmohan Singh was also the minister incharge of the Coal portfolio, many coal blocks were given to private players without an auction. After the Modi Government came to power, the CBI registered a preliminary inquiry against Singh and some officials, but the former prime minister is protected by a supreme court stay order on arbitrary prosecution.

When CM's take up multiple roles

In States too chief ministers keep critical portfolios with themselves, especially that of the Finance as it is crucial to fund distribution to all ministries.

During the mining sector boom from 1990 to 2015 when there was huge demand for metals, cement and sand, it was common for chief ministers to keep the Mines and Geology portfolio as these were huge moneyspinners for the party and personal funds.

PM Narendra Modi delegates, but...

Unlike several of his predecessors, Narendra Modi is not fond of keeping heavy-duty portfolios, except those assigned to the Prime Minister by convention like that of the Personnel, Atomic Energy and Space. In both his terms portfolios were assigned to ministers, with some ministers getting more than two departments. But when he became the Prime Minister, the Rashtrapati Bhavan listed "all important policy matters" will come under the Prime Minister, thus giving complete overriding power to the PM, who had secured a good majority in the Lok Sabha. As he alone could define what is an important policy matter, ministers quickly got the message.

But Imran Khan obviously does not control even his own ministry's fate, let alone other "important policy matters" in the Pakistani governance system.

The comments posted here/below/in the given space are not on behalf of Onmanorama. The person posting the comment will be in sole ownership of its responsibility. According to the central government's IT rules, obscene or offensive statement made against a person, religion, community or nation is a punishable offense, and legal action would be taken against people who indulge in such activities.