Red zone files: Matrix is mutating

Updated Apr 23 2020


In the complex universe of Islamabad’s power corridors, deciphering the decision-making matrix on coronavirus has become an odious task. Look closely, however, and a pattern emerges.

On the issue of the virus, the federal government had a bad start. Whatever top leaders may say in the centre or in Punjab about how ready they were, the fact is they were not. By February coronavirus was spreading across the world and garnering attention of decision-makers in distant capitals, but our federal capital floated in a quasi-state of denial. This initial denial formed the basis of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s aversion to the concept of a lockdown. This aversion continues till today.

So where did this initial denial originate from?

Here’s where things get interesting. Whenever a crisis emerges, every leader’s instinctive reaction is to turn to people who the leader thinks are knowledgeable in that particular area. Prime Minister Khan was no different. Government insiders say he consulted with people close to him in order to understand the gravity of the virus. It was here, at the very early stages, that he was told the virus was not that big a deal. The prime minister is not a public health expert and he had no reason not to believe what he was told by some close aides. The seeds of doubt about the virility of the virus were sown then.

Who were these people? Ah, well…

Now it was time to take decisions. But by then the Sindh government was already ahead of everyone. Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah was racing ahead with decisions and actions. This created a genuine problem for the federal government because now it had a double reason to underplay the threat of coronavirus: first, because the prime minister had been told, erroneously as it turned out, that the virus was being unnecessarily hyped; and second because the one government run by the opposition was hyping it anyway. The instinctive reaction was what the country saw: the federal government dragging its feet and members of the cabinet scoffing at Mr Shah’s newfound zeal to combat the virus.

Since those fateful days in late February and early March, the federal government has continued to build its policy edifice on an erroneous analysis of some people who planted the seeds of doubt in the mind of their leader. But the virus had its own power of persuasion. By mid-March it was clear that the infection would spread faster than imagined by those sitting comfortably in­­side the Red Zone. That is when the wheels of government began to groan into life.

In a month since then much has altered on the chessboard of governance in the age of corona. The Centre-Sindh spat has, unfortunately, framed the politics of corona in a way that has painted policymaking into a corner. This has also led to the federal government taking a rigid position on the lockdown issue when it did not really need to. Sans the Sindh factor, perhaps we would have seen a different tone on the lockdown from the centre. Perhaps. Did Sindh contribute to this framing? Possibly yes. Who would let go of an opportunity to squeeze political mileage when it is coming nice and easy?

But then something good happened. Some people decided the divisive political framing of the crisis could not be allowed to affect the actual operational framing. Thus was born the National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC).

In the Red Zone today, therefore, the decision-making matrix is layered. The NCOC is the operational nerve-centre for everything corona, the National Coordination Committee is the supervisory body that formalises the decisions of the NCOC, and the federal cabinet — well — the federal cabinet gets to get briefed on everything corona without having to do a whole lot about corona.

Now let us go a bit deeper within this decision-making matrix. The divisive political framing of corona has had an adverse effect on the national direction, but this adverse effect has to a great extent been neutralised by the effectiveness of the operational framing. The major reason for the success, so far, of this operational framing is the people who are running the operational machinery.

In our governments today, there are some people who don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to the corona threat. There are some, however, who do get it. These are the people who are leading the war we are waging. At the centre, Planning Minister Asad Umar, health minister Dr Zafar Mirza and PM’s focal person Dr Faisal Sultan are three key people from the civilian side who are making the NCOC work. In Sindh, Mr Shah is on the ball and gets it. In KP, Taimur Saleem Jhagra gets it and is waging the war as it should be waged. In Balochistan, CM Jam Kamal also gets it. The key strength common between these men is that they are neither in denial, nor are they influenced by the ravages of political framing. Of course, they play to the gallery when needed, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of operations, all are hard-nosed realists.

The military high command has been absolutely critical in setting the operational framing in a coldly realistic perspective, unencumbered by the vicissitudes of political compulsions. The state juggernaut is barrelling ahead.

And yet, there are some serious issues within the overall decision-making matrix. Howsoever efficient and focused operations might be, they function under the wider matrix of the political umbrella. Under this umbrella, the ripple effects of the original error of judgement continue to soil policy perspectives. This is accentuated by another problem: now that cabinet ministers know the prime minister’s mind on lockdowns, no one wants to stick his or her neck out by verbalising a counter-argument. In fact, those who sit in cabinet meetings confide that some ministers make it a point to vociferously tell the prime minister how they are in complete agreement with him that there is no need for lockdowns.

There is more. In the age of corona, there is a subtle tug-of-war underway for some important ministries. One key cabinet member is considered vulnerable because the prime minister is said to be less than happy with this minister and as a result people are eyeing the portfolio of this cabinet member and also subtly undermining the said minister. In one meeting a person eyeing this ministry started undermining the present minister which led to a very senior member of the cabinet ‘losing his cool’ and telling the person to stop such talk. In such an environment, none would want to risk attempting to reframe the political framing of corona in order to synchronise it better with the operational framing.

The matrix too, it seems, is mutating.

Published in Dawn, April 23rd, 2020