A fairy-tale cabinet-By Cyril Almeida

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PRIME Minister Gilani’s (or are they President Zardari’s?) ministers are a bit like Snow White’s dwarfs, Santa Claus’s reindeer and Disney’s Dalmatians: you know there’s a lot of ’em but, try as you might, you really can’t name them all. There’s Dopey and Dasher and Chew and Sherry and Zehri and — only this is certain: they are all Happy.

Though, unlike the fictional characters, our ministers are not quite so cuddly. Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, PPP MNA from Jacobabad, is the man now responsible for the education of Pakistan’s children. His record is stellar. He is a veteran PPP leader, an LLB from SM Law College and an MA from the University of Karachi. Oh, and he was allegedly involved in a small matter of handing over five girls — the youngest was two, the oldest six — to settle a decade-old karo-kari feud in his area. Good ol’ Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry ordered his arrest in 2007. Bijarani points out though that he was subsequently cleared by a lower court.

There’s more good news for women. Senator Mir Israrullah Zehri, a Balochistan National Party (Awami) man who caused a furore recently by defending karo-kari as a tribal custom, has been rewarded with a ministry. To accommodate Zehri, postal services has been spun off from the communications ministry. So there you have it: Senator Mir Israrullah Zehri, minister for postal services. Women, beware: the confidentiality of your letters is now at risk.

Why not just give Zehri women’s development? The MQM has the answer: “[T]he ministry like woman development [sic] is of no importance,” an unnamed senior party leader told a local paper. Given the choice between no ministry and women’s development, the MQM chose the former. Serving the people apparently does not include women.

But there’s hope in Muzaffargarh. From there hail two new ministers, embodying the best of a secular, democratic dispensation. Abdul Qayyum Jatoi, NA-180, last made news in March when he was caught enjoying a late-night party at the ‘Cat House’ in Islamabad. At least Jatoi prefers the company of women; three Russians and three Chinese were amongst the 20 women detained in the raid on the house.

And Jatoi’s neighbour over in NA-177 is Hina Rabbani Khar, enlightened moderation personified. Our latest minister of state for finance and economic affairs is the envy of all ministers. She has an inherited constituency, so she can pick and choose who she wants to work with. The two-time MNA is already a two-time loyalist.

But at least she does not change her governance interests: Khar likes the economy. From parliamentary secretary to minister of state in the PML-Q dispensation and special assistant to the prime minister and back again to minister of state in the PPP one, Khar has stayed focused on economic affairs. And why not, for who better to explain to the IMF the mess we’re in than someone who had a front-row seat to the shenanigans that got us here?

My favourite though is Farzana Raja, who has used the chairmanship of the Benazir Income Support Programme to acquire for herself ministerial status. The poor have become a status symbol. Perhaps as the next step in self-aggrandisement ‘Minister’ Raja can have a bus load of BISP beneficiaries follow her flag-flying car. They can tumble out on demand, ready to sing Raja’s praises at opportune moments. Six months of that and she may be ready to be canonised.

And all this before Round 3, when the MQM and JUI-F will be brought on board — which they must before the Senate elections in March. And there still remains the possibility of the PML-Q, forward bloc or the whole lot of them, hopping on board.

At least we now know where a slice of that IMF bailout will go. The 55-plus cabinet is creeping up to the 75-odd ministers of Shaukat Aziz and the 65-odd of BB’s second stint. Good luck trying to get precise numbers. Farzana Rajas abound: ministers who aren’t quite ministers but have ministerial status. It’s all very confusing, unless you happen to be a beneficiary — in which case you are of course Happy.

It is easy to get carried away though. The cabinet has been plucked from politicians of the Class of 2008, a wily lot. The fact that the cabinet isn’t smaller points to another factor at play: survival is informing the choices of Zardari or Gilani (whoever the cabinet really belongs to).

But what’s good for Zardari’s survival is not necessarily good for our survival. The real problem isn’t size but performance. Try naming half a dozen ministers from the pre-expansion set-up. Visibility does not equate to performance, as the Mohammad Ali Durranis and Wasi Zafars of the last government proved, but after 12 years in the wilderness surely we can expect some ministers to be ready to unveil their plans. Where have they been all these months?

And if not some performance by every minister, then how about a decent performance by some ministers? Again, the most active members of the cabinet are unelected: Rehman Malik and Shaukat Tareen. For every 20 ideas they come up with, 19 may be nonsensical. But better to be 1 from 20 than 0 from 0.

And if not a decent performance by some ministers, then how about righting constitutional imbalances? Again, given the nature of our politics it would be unfair to expect Zardari to do anything about it before March when Senate elections will be held and much of the PML-Q and MMA deadwood will be cleared out. But if March comes and goes?

And if not constitutional readjustments then how about the law at the micro level: the lower courts, the police and public prosecutors? Set them free from political interference. Let them get on with the business of protecting the people; hobbled as the institutions are they can still make a difference.

And if not the micro level — then what? Where does it stop? At what point do you give up, resigned to watching opportunities slip by yet again. This cabinet can yet become a footnote to this government if Zardari wants. All he has to do is think. Think big, think small. And then act. Not in our name but in our interests.



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