One of only two women in the male-dominated cabinet of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Anusha Rehman has been in the limelight this week as one of the main players at the forefront of the auction of 3G and 4G licences, a move that fetched the national exchequer nearly $1.12 billion.
Indeed, for a party that has no shortage of political heavyweights and where the leadership is known to be unwilling to ‘spread the power’, Ms Rehman has been handed a very important portfolio.
Since there is no federal minister for information technology, she is the boss. The fact that she is an unelected parliamentarian, who made her way to the National Assembly on a reserved seat, makes her case even more fascinating.
Unlike the Pakistan People’s Party, the all-boys club of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is not known for creating high-profile women leaders. But defying the odds, Rehman has carved a niche for herself. She now moves among the power players, has a bigger public profile than party stalwart Tehmina Daultana – who the party appears to be keeping at arm’s length – and seems more entrenched than newcomers such as Marvi Memon.
A corporate lawyer by profession, this is her second consecutive stint in the National Assembly on a PML-N ticket. Although Rehman was quite active in the National Assembly standing committees on law and information technology during 2008-2013, her inclusion in the federal cabinet raised many eyebrows – both inside and outside the party.
Many political veterans, as well as newcomers who joined the party just before the May 2013 elections, or even those who discovered the Sharif charisma after winning seats independently, waited patiently for many days with their cell phones in hand.
All were waiting for that hallowed call from Raiwind. But few got the call.
The soft-spoken Rehman was one of those lucky ones. Her competitors, especially those who had won reserved seats, could be heard fuming in parliament house later.
In a fit of petulance, one of her critics from within the party exclaimed that Rehman was chosen because she had “a degree from abroad” and “was good at making presentations”. This put her ahead of many whose “long history of sacrifices for the party” was ignored. Her detractors also point to the recent hullabaloo surrounding the appointment and subsequent resignation of her husband from the board of Pakistan Telecommunication Limited (PTCL).
“She is one among equals, but she tried to get him a lucrative job with PTCL. But he had to resign once media got wind of this blatant conflict of interest,” they said.
Rehman belongs to a traditional family from Gowalmandi in Lahore, which is also Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s home constituency. While none of her relatives ever made it to the legislature, both at the provincial and national level, they have been perennial Muslim League supporters.
In the early 90s, Rehman worked as a young lawyer in her uncle Khalid Ishaq’s chambers. Ishaq was part of the team that got the first PML-N government ‘restored’ after it had been sent home by the president in 1993. Ishaq also handled the legal matters of the Ittefaq Foundries, owned by the Sharif family. It was while working at Ishaq’s chambers that Rehman got her first taste of politics and become associated with the party as a member of its lawyers’ wing in Lahore.
Her political journey began in earnest when in 2006-2007, she was made senior vice president of the lawyers’ wing and played an active role in the movement for the restoration of the judiciary. She was also a key member of the party’s steering committee in 2009, which was tasked with dealing with legal matters.
Critics say meteoric rise within the party was due to her closeness to finance minister Ishaq Dar, who is said to be the prime minister’s right hand man.
Before the 2008 general elections, she directly assisted Dar at the PML-N’s main election cell and was one of the people credited for the party’s 90-plus seat haul in the first post-dictatorship polls.
In this time, it is said; she managed to impress the Sharif brothers and was rewarded with a reserved seat.
She also played a similar role in the last election and is said to have worked to finalise the list of potential candidates.
But Rehman brushes off such criticism, contending that she has been working with the telecom sector since the 90s.
“I am a corporate-slash-commercial-slash-constitutional lawyer and have worked with nearly all the leading private telecom companies in the country,” Rehman says, revealing that her LLM dissertation was entitled ‘Privatization of the Telecom Sector in Pakistan.
Her detractors argue that by putting her in charge of the lucrative IT ministry’s affairs, the finance minister had ensured that it was his ministry that was calling all the shots, especially in the context of the recently-held billion dollar auction of 3G and 4G licences.
But Rehman insists that with her added experiences as an active member of the IT committee during the tenure of the previous National Assembly, she is more than up to challenge.