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In February 2020 Ms Tania Aidrus was notified the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Digital Pakistan. Before coming back to Pakistan Ms Aidrus had been working for Google for 12 years in various leadership roles, her last one being “Director, Product, Payments for Next Billion Users”. Ms Aidrus’ return to Pakistan, according to various sources within the government, was facilitated by Mr Jahangir Khan Tareen, the erstwhile PTI party stalwart. However, after the ouster of Jahangir Tareen due to the sugar scandal, opposing PTI factions want Ms Aidrus out too.

Conflict of interest or line of attack?

Long before Ms Aidrus’ notification as the SAPM on Faberuary 27, 2020, she and her former Google colleague Mr Khurram Jamali had been in talks with the government since early 2019. These talks were facilitated by Mr Jahangir Khan Tareen who was unofficially leading many of the reforms initiatives of the PTI government. According to the finalized plan, both Ms Aidrus and Mr Jamali would leave Google to join Prime Minister’s Digital Pakistan Initiative. Mr Jamali formerly worked under Ms Aidrus as “Head of Partnerships - Payments for Next Billion Users” at Google.

Ms Aidrus speaks at the inauguration ceremony of Digital Pakistan Initiative in Islamabad
Ms Aidrus speaks at the inauguration ceremony of Digital Pakistan Initiative in Islamabad

Finally, in a grand ceremony in December 2019 held in Islamabad, the Prime Minister announced that Ms Aidrus would lead the Digital Pakistan Initiative. Ms Aidrus spoke on the occasion and gave an outline of her plan for Digital Pakistan. The presentation that both Ms Aidrus and Mr Jamali had earlier given the Prime included a plan to create a non-profit organization called Digital Pakistan Foundation. Both Ms Aidrus and Mr Jamali had given the outline of what Digital Pakistan Foundation was going to be.

According to Ms Aidrus, the government’s Digital Pakistan Initiative has no Federal Budget assigned to it, neither is it under the ambit of Ministry of IT or Ministry of Science and Technology, leaving it high and dry. The plan, since day one, and as presented to the Prime Minister, was to create a non-profit foundation called Digital Pakistan Foundation in parallel to the government’s Digital Pakistan Initiative.

Talking to Business Recorder, a source close the the developments said, “She has been talking about the Digital Pakistan Foundation since day one, she has been pretty transparent about it. She had been saying that she will make a foundation, and raise money to attract Pakistani talent abroad with good salaries because the Government of Pakistan isn’t spending anything on the Digital Pakistan Initiative. This was her plan from the very beginning and I think Khan was aware of it.”

The same was being said be both Mr Jamali and Ms Aidrus at various webinars and talks they were giving to industry groups. One such webinar, given to Open Silicon Valley group, a group of Pakistani expatriates in USA working in tech, Mr Jamali gave his outline. According to Mr Jamali, this was not a novel structure unique to Pakistan and they did not come up with the idea on their own. According to Mr Jamali, India also has a similar structure where a non-profit think-tank called iSpirit works as an industry group in parallel to the government on policy formulations to execution of digital projects.

Hence, on 27th February 2020, a day before Ms Aidrus was officially notified as SAPM, Digital Pakistan Foundation was registered with SECP as a non-profit foundation. The foundation had Mr Jamali as its CEO; Ms Aidrus as the Chairperson of the board; and Mr Mudassir Ilyas Shaikha, Mr Sikandar Bashir Mohmand, and Mr Jahangir Khan Tareen as board members. Pertinent to mention here is that Mr Mohmand is Mr Tareen’s lawyer in court for the sugar scandal.

Later in April, when sugar scandal came out and it became obvious that Mr Tareen was being ousted from PTI, both Mr Mohmand and Mr Tareen resigned from the board of Digital Pakistan Foundation.

While technically a conflict of interest on holding both roles does exist, however, there have been no indications that Ms Aidrus had kept her involvement with Digital Pakistan Foundation secret at any point. In fact, both Ms Aidrus and Mr Jamali had been touting the benefits of this structure very publicly.

Why now?

The Digital Pakistan Foundation was made in February, both Ms Aidrus and Mr Jamali had been talking about it publicly since then in various interviews and webinars, so why has it suddenly become a scandal? This, according to investigations by Business Recorder, has to do with Mr Tareen’s ouster.

Jahangir Khan Tareen was a PTI party stalwart, he was a patron to many position holders within the PTI government and was extremely close the Prime Minister. When the sugar scandal came out, the Prime Minister Imran Khan grew disillusioned with Mr Tareen for prioritizing his sugar business over national interest. This led to the estrangement of the PM and Mr Tareen, who, according to sources, are not on talking terms any longer. Mr Tareen has reportedly left Pakistan and does not hold sway in the government anymore.

Consequently, all those brought into the party and the government by Mr Tareen stand vulnerable to PTI’s faction wars and infighting. Ms Aidrus is one of the casualties.

The attacks on Ms Aidrus seem to be emanating from the office of Shabahat Ali Shah, CEO of NITB. From day one, Ms Aidrus and Mr Shah have not been getting along. Since both work for IT side of the government, there has been an overlap of their turfs, leading to turf wars. A close friend of Mr Shah, Ms Sabeen Sultan has been leading social media attacks against Ms Aidrus. Taking advantage of Ms Aidrus’ fresh vulnerability, they allegedly want her ousted from her role as SAPM. To that end, the Digital Pakistan Foundation scandal was intentionally hyped up and leaked to a journalist, whose thread about the scandal was later picked up by various media outlets.

The cost of Infighting

While two of the arguably most important government departments are involved in infighting, it is Pakistan that is suffering. Due to this infighting, the development of critical and key software infrastructure aimed at leading the government's war against Coronavirus was also made controversial, as reported by Business Recorder earlier. It seems like in many other projects of the PTI government, the important work in the IT sector of Pakistan will also be sacrificed to the clash of egos and turf wars.

As with everything, the buck of this too stops with the Prime Minister.