Red zone files: The great gamble?

Updated Jul 11 2020

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All is well as well can be in an unwell way. The debate over lockdowns is almost dead. With the final rites being performed momentarily, Pakistan will soon be open for business. And for Covid-19. Easing restrictions and opening up economic activity under the overhang of the virus was a difficult decision taken easily.

Why easily?

Here’s where the decision-making dynamics within the current power matrix played themselves out in the Red Zone. In the battle against coronavirus, the decision-making matrix has evolved over the weeks and has now crystallised into a definitive shape. This is important in the context of the debate over lockdowns because if the debate is now settled — which it appears to be — the decision has been taken by all key stakeholders within this decision-making matrix and not just by an individual.

The most important individual, of course, is Prime Minister Imran Khan. He has been against the concept of a lockdown from the initial corona days. How did he come to oppose the concept of a lockdown? There are many explanations. Most of them, however, have one thing in common: the key role of at least one cabinet member who influenced the prime minister’s mind on lockdowns and why they were not that important for Pakistan. Even today there are many within the higher echelons of the ruling party who are against easing the lockdown so early but very few — perhaps almost none — are interested in voicing their opinion knowing that the prime minister has made up his mind.

But apparently it’s not just his mind that is made up. The National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC) has also reached a similar conclusion. The NCOC is headed by Planning Minister Asad Umar and he echoes the sentiments of the prime minister on lockdowns. The NCOC, however, is not the brainchild of the PTI government. In the early corona days when the government appeared oblivious to the threat of the virus and was in fact playing it down, powerful quarters decided they needed to get the action moving before it was too late. The NCOC was formed, staffed and equipped in double quick time. The government was then inducted into it.

Since then, the powerful forum has worked smoothly. In essence, the ultimate decision on the easing of the lockdown combines the prime minister’s decision with the NCOC’s recommendation which in turn is based on the conclusions drawn by the experts and commanders that populate the forum. On the surface at least, there is no divergence.

This also means that the decision is a collective gamble. If the situation goes south in the coming weeks, a collective responsibility shall need to be taken.

In this collective responsibility — or credit if the case may be — the federal cabinet will have no role. Cabinet insiders admit they have not been part of any Covid-19 decision-making. None whatsoever. The cabinet is briefed about the decisions but that is as far as it goes. Which suits many of them fine. They have enough issues to deal with on their own.

And deal with the mess many such issues create too. The minorities’ commission is a case in point. A decision was made to give representation to the Ahmadi community by the government. The minutes of the meeting were duly approved but then two federal ministers suddenly launched a protest which went public.

Given the nature of the issue, a fresh summary was sent to the cabinet this time excluding Ahmadis from the commission. Some among the cabinet, in order to justify this U-turn, tried to lay the blame on a senior official of the Cabinet Division. That didn’t work because that wasn’t true. What did work was another successful U-turn by the government. But insiders say the prime minister gave a scolding to one of the ministers responsible for triggering the controversy.

No surprise however that in the cabinet meeting, members remained silent on the U-turn. No one wants to speak on such issues. There were, however, two or three ministers who did protest this blatant U-turn. In fact, it so transpires that some Pakistani diplomats have informed Islamabad that an international forum of importance has taken note — not a favourable one — of this U-turn in the context of the minorities issues.

The cabinet is also grappling with the IPP’s issue. Except, not really. The government raised a ruckus over how the IPP contracts were drawn up to benefit power producers and the terms of these contracts required to be re-negotiated. IPP’s were the biggest villains this side of Suez and — as per the government’s narrative — and they would be cut to size once a report on their doings is compiled and released. The release of that report is taking a long time for some reason, prompting some people in the government to speculate that long-drawn negotiations are under way. This has made at least one federal minister rather unhappy. The talk inside the Red Zone is that this minister — one of the closest to the prime minister — is sulking. In fact he is eerily quiet which is being noticed because he is one of the most vocal people in the party. He has been very passionate about the IPP issue and his colleagues say he is feeling rather frustrated.

In fact, he’s not the only one among PTI people who admit some frustration in the way things are happening in Islamabad. It is no secret inside the hallowed corridors who is “in” and who is “out” of the inner circle. The neat divisions between the traditional “Asad Umar camp” and “Jahangir Tareen camp” have also blurred to some extent. It is therefore possible that amongst those who are ‘out of favour’ are ministers from each camp. Quiet realignments are taking place as key PTI members wait and watch whether new camps emerge as Tareen has receded from the power game — for now at least.

Former Punjab chief secretary Azam Suleman’s sudden ouster also created shockwaves that continue to ripple silently across the power centres in Punjab and the centre. Senior government officials now admit Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar has grown in power after the chief secretary’s unceremonious transfer only a few months after he was sent to the province with a solid and clear mandate to get the job done. In fact, insiders say he was given full backing right from the top to run the affairs of the province. However, Buzdar got his way in the end and the chief secretary was, without a warning, made an OSD. Even his powerful friends and coursemates were not informed of his transfer. It was only after an intervention from some of these coursemates that he was given the posting as secretary interior.

In the Red Zone, wins and losses are often temporary.

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2020