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EDITORIAL: Increasing tensions between elected and unelected members of the federal government claimed two casualties when Special Assistants to the Prime Minister (SAPMs) on Health and Digital Pakistan, Dr Zafar Mirza and Tania Aidrus, respectively, tendered their resignations, which were readily accepted by their boss Prime Minister Imran Khan. Dr Mirza who had left an important post at the World Health Organization (WHO) to serve in his own country, said he had resigned because of "negative discussion about the role of SAPMs and criticism of the government [over them]". Aidrus gave a similar explanation for her departure, saying her Canadian nationality, a consequence of her birth and not an acquisition of choice, served as a distraction to her ability to execute the long-term vision for a digital Pakistan. Both deserve to be commended for doing a good job in a difficult time. While the former handled the Covid-19 crisis well, the latter ensured efficient delivery of assistance money, under the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Programme, to the jobless poor. There may be more to their exit than meets the eye, though.

The issue of dual nationality has been drawing a lot of criticism from the opposition parties after the PM's advisers and SAPMs declared their nationalities and assets on his direction. Their detractors argue that since the law bars legislators, some of whom go on to become ministers, the same should apply to anyone holding ministerial status. To be sure, although the Constitution allows the PM to have five unelected advisers, it places no such restriction on the number of SAPMs, or on their dual nationalities and the recent judgment by the Islamabad High Court should set this controversy at rest. There are many non-resident Pakistanis who have distinguished themselves in their respective professions and are eager to serve the country of their origin. Pakistan has a lot to gain from their service. But problems arise when those having taken oath of allegiance to a foreign county attend cabinet meetings, where they may become privy to classified information. No less important issue is the exercise of executive authority by the PM's unelected aides, SAPMs in particular. It acts as a disincentive for senior bureaucrats to implement policy decisions made by these people. Dr Mirza may have been referring to such situations when in a post-resignation interview he averred "the system is not helpful, it is so slow and has become self-serving due to which it's difficult to work."

This is not the end of the controversy yet. The present development is likely to encourage more to follow suit since at least five of the 13 remaining SAPMs either hold foreign nationalities or residency permits. It is about time the federal cabinet reviewed terms and conditions of their assignments. A better way to benefit from the knowledge and expertise of these specialists is to have them serve in advisory capacity rather than holding charge of ministries and executing policy as is done by an elected minister.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020