The surprising departure last week of two of the PM’s dozen+ “special assistants” has inspired multiple interpretations. Add “poor timing” to the mix. One SAPM handled health services; the other assisted on “Digital Pakistan”. Under the pall of coronavirus, healthcare and digital solutions have been (and ought to be) center-stage in crisis response. But these two departures do not send a good message, especially to the much sought-after donors whose funding is to bridge a number of public interventions in these times.
Sources suggest that both the lady and the gentleman had already felt dejected working for the government. The SAPM Health felt that his efforts fighting coronavirus weren’t being appreciated by the leadership. Being criticized by the top court was also demoralizing. A promotion to full-time minister would have helped, but it never came to pass. The SAPM on Digital Pakistan felt being unduly criticized, early in her tenure, at a lack of results on her digitization agenda. With her chief political reference falling out with the PM, her role was minimized by job being done at National IT Board and at the Ministry of IT.
Fitting into a broader picture, this resignation episode is the latest reminder of the turf war that is being waged so openly between “elected” cabinet members and their “professional” colleagues. The space for technocrats seems to be shrinking in the decision-making corridors. Earlier, PM Khan is said to have harbored a healthy predilection for “experts” in matters of governance. And it shows in the composition of the federal cabinet. But things may be changing.
For one, Khan may now feel less pressure to heed technical advisory. Sources suggest that the influence of advisors, especially in economic domains, had grown after the country’s EFF signup with the IMF in mid-2019. But the so-called window for reforms and fiscal prudence lasted less than a year, as coronavirus threw spanner in the works. With the Fund trying to appear “human” in the wake of misery visiting many borrowing nations, the conditional loan programs had to be relaxed. At home, PM’s advisors’ sway has waned in tandem, as the urgency to meet the program’s conditions has receded.
In addition, the established politicos in the ruling party may finally have the PM’s attention. Sources say that after forming the government, a technocratic-heavy setup was swallowed by PTI’s political class only after indications by the leadership that governance needed to be provided early on, and come mid-term, politicians will be put in charge to prepare for next elections. With less than six months due in the half-way mark, it is no surprise that several elected cabinet members have made themselves heard in the public. There is also this talk that PM himself is encouraging the public grumbling, to create political space.
The schism between “elected” ministers and “anointed” professionals is not something new. But the public nature of ongoing rift is rather novel. It doesn’t help that “dual citizenship” became a weapon in this fight. Loyalty to the country is hard to prove, as suggested by the two ex-SAMPs in their resignation letters. A recent order by the Islamabad High Court – noting that there is no constitutional bar on a dual national serving as PM’s advisor or assistant – should end this needless bickering. But what is more likely is the widening of cracks in the cabinet, over matters of power and patronage. The more things change…