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“If you don't cannibalize yourself, someone else will”. Prime Minister Imran Khan may or may not have read that Steve Job quote in Walter Isaacson’s biography of the personal computing pioneer, but his frequent cabinet reshuffles reflect his willingness to embrace political self-cannibalization. By sacrificing his second finance minister in as many years, the premier is making an attempt to wrest public support.

In the business world, self-cannibalization would entail replacing your most profitable product with something new, with an eye on keeping the long-term market share through innovation. Stretching the parallel to the political world, self-cannibalization would be about putting your most trusted lieutenants out to pasture, in order to recoup some lost political capital.

The move is fraught with risks, but the payoff is also ‘handsome’, if it is done right. In the business world, the continuing success of behemoths such as Apple in the tech world and Procter & Gamble in the FMCG universe is attributable to strategies that favor bringing in new products to the consumers despite incumbent brands doing well in established markets. There is internal resistance to change what is already working well, but a clairvoyant leadership eventually pulls through.

In the political world, a high-profile cabinet reshuffle, or even axing of a leading minister after a scandal or crisis, gives the public an impression that the ruling party is at least listening. In the US, several presidents have followed course correction after defeats in mid-term elections, to learn from the mistakes and improve their approval ratings for the next election.

Political self-cannibalization can take deadly turns, too. Several “purges” took place under USSR’s Joseph Stalin, with the original intent to cleanse party ranks to remain true to communism. The “Great Purge” (1936-38) alone, historians say, took lives of almost a million people. In China, Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1976), which aimed to target capitalists and bourgeoisie, also brought great misery.

But thankfully, politics in Pakistan is largely “war without bloodshed”, so a “purge” can be a peaceful one. Now with “young” blood heading the Q-block, Khan has another opportunity to fix the economy in the final half of his term. There will be speculation over why Mr. Shaikh was fired (or did he step down himself)? After all, the PM had been supportive of his finance czar of late. Besides, controlling “inflation” isn’t up to a finance minister. What really happened?

The speculation will die down, however. What counts is that the public has been given a message – amidst struggle on critical fronts such as coronavirus containment and inflationary pressures ahead of Ramazan – that the PTI government is not afraid to make a political offering or engage in self-criticism if it helps to steady the governing ship. With the wind out of the opposition’s sails, the message is that the government is not taking things for granted anymore.

But it’s unclear how the public will respond to such messages of course correction. Real performance is required in these unprecedented times. Due to a mix of local and international factors, the public is set to experience more jumps in prices of food, fuel and electricity in coming months. That inevitability cannot be mitigated by the third, or a fourth, finance minister. Khan may soon learn that political self-cannibalization has its limits. You cannot fire your way to get re-elected. It’s time to toil.


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