The cabinet of the new Prime Minister Shahid Khaqqan Abbasi indicates the ruling party will adopt a collision course with state institutions after the disqualification of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Almost double the last cabinet, it is also an attempt to plug rifts in the party and prepare for the next election.
Most ministers are from the last cabinet but new faces have been inducted to give a clear message to party workers, rivals and the establishment that loyalty to the Sharif family is the biggest criterion to become a minister. The new ministers are mostly those who defended the Sharif family in the Panama case outside the Supreme Court of Pakistan and in the media. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif started with a 25-member cabinet in 2013. He inducted few ministers from allied parties later. However, the size of the new cabinet is now 47, which is the maximum number under the law. According to the 18th Constitution Amendment, the size of the cabinet should not be more than 11 per cent of the total strength of the National Assembly and the Senate. It means the new prime minister has reached his limit.
return for standing by the ruling family through thick and thin and defending them in the Panama case, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) of Maulana Fazlur Rehman was rewarded with two federal ministries in the new cabinet against one in the last. Maulana Ameer Zaman was the second leader of the party after Akram Khan Durrani, who was included in the cabinet. The most shocking inclusion was of Ishaq Dar, who retained the finance ministry. He has become controversial after the Supreme Court of Pakistan sent his cases of money laundering and accumulating wealth beyond known sources of income to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). It appears he will have to resign in a few weeks. Khawaja Asif, who served as the defence minister in the last cabinet, became foreign minister. He is the first foreign minister in the government as the ministry was earlier overseen by the ousted prime minister. Mushahidullah Khan, who had been removed from the last federal cabinet for his controversial remarks against the military establishment, was appointed federal minister for climate change. Khurram Dastgir replaced Khawaja Asif as defence minister and he was replaced by Pervez Malik as commerce minister. Talal Chaudhry, a newcomer, was appointed minister of state for the interior. Daniyal Aziz was also offered a state ministry but he failed to take oath initially. The most prominent omission was Chaudhry Nisar Ali, who was interior minister in the last cabinet. He was replaced by Ahsan Iqbal. The former interior minister’s refusal to accept his ministry indicates serious differences in the party.
Five new ministries of narcotics, privatisation, statistics, water resource and postal service were created to accommodate the maximum number of ministers. The cabinet also included five new ministers from south Punjab and a Hindu minister, appointed for the first time in 25 years. Hafiz Abdul Karim, Syed Javed Ali Shah, Abdul Rehman Kanju, Sardar Awais Leghari and Arshad Khan Leghari are the new inclusion in the cabinet, raising the number of ministers from south Punjab in the new cabinet to 11. Dr. Darshan Punshi, from Sindh, was sworn-in as minister of state and he is the first Hindu minister appointed in 25 years.
With each minister holding a portfolio, the larger size of the cabinet indicates the political strategy of the PML-N government to contest the elections with full force. Maximum funds will also be provided to them to complete development projects in their constituencies. With just 10 months before the next election, the government will attempt to minimize the loss it suffered in the shape of the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif on corruption charges. As expected, its main focus will be the Punjab, especially south Punjab, where its position is vulnerable. The PML-N has always resisted local demands for the formation of a new province in south Punjab. It has appointed 11 ministers to woo local voters, but its scheme may fail if the opposition, especially the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan, launches its election campaign in the region with the promise of the formation of a new province. The PPP had promised a new province before the last election, but it failed to attract people, like the rest of the Punjab.
Rifts have emerged in the cabinet since the day it was announced. Daniyal Aziz, who defended the ruling family on talk shows and outside the Supreme Court and launched scathing attacks on Imran Khan, was offered the post of junior minister, but he refused to accept it. His absence in the swearing-in was noticed by all. It is said he was offered the portfolio of minister of state for Kashmir affairs, but he declined. Another last-minute adjustment was made when PML-N MNA Mumtaz Ahmed Tarar was replaced with Awais Ahmed Leghari. An official list of ministers carried the name of Mumtaz Tarar, but instead Awais Leghari took oath as a member of the cabinet. Mumtaz Tarar was offered the Ministry of Science and Technology but he refused.
With the inclusion of Mushahidullah Khan, the government has sent a clear message to the establishment that it wants confrontation. He was forced to resign in 2015 after he accused a former ISI chief of plotting against the government and being behind the sit-ins of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri in Islamabad in 2014. By naming Daniyal Aziz and Talal Chaudhry, who are vocal critics of the judiciary and the establishment, the government has made its intent more clear. However, it is believed that dissent in the ruling party will start to widen after cases of corruption, money laundering and tax evasion are filed against the Sharif family in accountability courts after their approval by the National Accountability (NAB). Ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s confrontational politics aims to save himself and the family from being arrested and jailed. However, it is said the law will take its course and any attempt to trample national institutions will be dealt with an iron hand. Seeing his leaders in jail, the new prime minister could also dissolve the assemblies in few months and call early elections.