Syed Murad Ali Shah: Picking up from where he left off

Mazhar Abbas
Sindh Chief Minister-elect Syed Murad Ali Shah speaks during the provincial assemblys session on February 27, 2024. — Facebook/Syed Murad Ali Shah
Sindh Chief Minister-elect Syed Murad Ali Shah speaks during the provincial assembly's session on February 27, 2024. — Facebook/Syed Murad Ali Shah

Syed Murad Ali Shah, set to be sworn in as chief minister (CM) of Sindh on Tuesday to resume from where he had left off in August last year, faces a daunting task ahead.

Shah once told me that the biggest problem he came across during his previous tenure was 'incompetence' and my reply was: "Who is responsible [for it]".

It’s time for him to restore the culture of competence and merit instead of nepotism and political hiring. One wishes him the best of luck as no doubt he has immense qualities at least to the extent that even former Prime Minister Imran Khan (IK) used to praise him for his "homework" during cabinet meetings.

Once, I asked IK about the performance of CMs and he picked Syed Murad Ali Shah for being on top of his tasks. "I always found him quite well-prepared even on issues we don't agree with and I even tell his counterparts in my party about it as well," Khan said.

Unlike Khan, who has been unlucky when it comes to the selection of chief ministers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in 2013 and 2018 and in Punjab in 2018, the PPP leadership once again reposed its confidence in two-time chief minister, Syed Murad Ali, who is the son of former chief minister later Syed Abdullah Shah. The question is why the party has so much confidence in the younger Shah.

In KP, Khan brought Syed Pervez Khattak in 2013 as CM, KP and his performance led the party to secure a two-thirds majority in KP but to everyone's surprise, IK replaced Khattak with Mahmood Khan, who turned out to be yet another disaster. Now, both have left IK and he has now nominated his party loyalist — though controversial — Ali Amin Ghandapur.

However, the biggest disaster for IK turned out to be the surprise selection of Usman Buzdar as CM, who within three years brought Khan's popularity graph rapidly down. Even the party's rank and file were not happy with his selection.

Punjab has been the luckiest province whether its CM was Shehbaz Sharif or Chaudhry Pervez Elashi. Many believe that had IK made Pervez Elahi the CM, keeping his track record in mind, the founder of PTI would not have lost his government most probably.

Shah, who will begin his third consecutive innings as CM today, was also elected MPA for a record 8th time along with former CM Syed Qaim Ali Shah. Shah after taking the oath told me: "Look Mazhar, I am still as young as anyone else". With a smile, I replied: " Yes, indeed but democracy is still a dream".

He faces a daunting task ahead as political challenges are far more complicated than before in the country in general and provinces in particular. And above all, Karachi, the megacity of over 20 million is still lagging far behind the cities like Lahore or Islamabad despite being the economic hub. Can he pull it off, this time?

IK and Shah had a cordial relationship till Pakistan was hit by COVID-19, and both the centre and Sindh adopted different approaches to handle the most deadly pandemic. However, Pakistan's handling of the disease was later appreciated worldwide and one of the reasons for it was the work of the joint committee headed by former PTI leader and federal minister, Asad Umer.

Although both the PTI and the PPP are poles apart in their politics, Shah always followed the protocol and showed up on time whenever he was called by the then PM to receive him or attend any meeting. There had been a few instances in which CM Sindh was not invited even to the Governor's House. Shah never complained about it nor raised any questions.

In the past, we have seen, in Punjab in particular, that Nawaz Sharif as chief minister never received any Prime Minister at Lahore airport in the 90s, an action which at times made headlines.

One can have two opinions about the past performance of Syed Murad Ali Shah as Sindh's finance minister as well as chief minister including the key issue of law and order and governance but there is no denying the fact that Shah was never scared of facing criticism. Challenges will not be different as issues of governance are among the most serious ones in the province.

After the 18th amendment, provinces became autonomous on many issues like education, health, and labour. It is also in the Charter of Democracy (COD), that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has to be the leader of the opposition but Sindh never had an opposition leader as head of PAC. Shah this time showed the courage to enforce COD, Besides, empowering the local bodies with all political, financial and administrative power to ease the burden on the provincial government.

Arguably Police Order, 2002, across the board considered the best as far as reforming the police is concerned and no city other than Karachi needs such an order. Karachi is still looking for the long-delayed 'Safe City Project' whose cost has been multiplying with the passage of every year. Both Islamabad and Lahore have had this project for a long time but it remains elusive in Karachi.

Now the question is why the PPP leadership preferred him over peers like Syed Nasir Hussain Shah, Sharjeel Memon, and above all Faryal Talpur, sister of former president, Asif Ali Zardari, who has again been nominated by the PPP and the PML-N alliance for the office of the head of the state.

The choice of the son of Syed Abdullah Shah, who perhaps experienced a far more difficult period in the mid-90s as chief minister, is linked to his ability to defend the party and the government in a far more convincing way than many others in the party besides his command over financial, administrative and political matters.

The way he tackled complicated issues during the three and half years of IK's government is commendable. He did face serious charges by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) as he had been the finance Minister as well.

Back in the day, I extensively covered Abdullah Shah as those were difficult times due to extra-judicial killings and the deteriorating law and order situation amid criticism of the elder Shah's performance.

A Herculean labour is waiting for Shah and failure is not an option for him as this is his third term. He not only has to make Karachi the 'model city' it deserves to be but also transform Sindh into an enviable example for other provinces.

He has to accept the leader of the opposition as Chairman PAC, enforce the 18th amendment, and empower local bodies. Sindh is facing an education crisis — from school level to higher.

The conditions of key government hospitals are pathetic despite improvement in the health sector. Student unions need to be restored and the protection of labour and their rights must be ensured.

Shah, who received his early education from St Patrick's High School and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from NED University of Engineering and Technology, very well knows how prestigious institutes like DJ Science College, Adamjee College, Premier College, etc were destroyed.

Why is Sindh far behind in education? Why it doesn't have even a single institution of international standard left? He undertook concurrent Master of Science programmes in Civil-Structural Engineering and Engineering Economic Systems at Stanford University in California. So, who knows better than him that the majority of our flyovers, underpasses in particular, were designed and made by highly 'incompetent engineers' and the flawed projects involved massive corruption?

The chief minister can only make history if he leaves such legacies behind. Let's see how Syed Murad Ali Shah performs this time around.

The writer is a columnist and analyst for Geo, The News and Jang. He posts on X @MazharAbbasGEO