Red zone files: Curious case of the cabinet

Updated May 21, 2020

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Votes count. But do they add up?  — APP/File
Votes count. But do they add up? — APP/File

Votes count. But do they add up?

Ask Ghulam Sarwar Khan. He is the federal aviation minister. He is the winner of two National Assembly seats from Taxila. Yes two. He gave the other one to his son in a by-election. He made his nephew win the provincial assembly seat. The other MPA seat was also won by a PTI nominee from his group.

Sarwar Khan is the nemesis of the real heavyweight of the area who answers to the name Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan. He should feel vindicated. He has prevailed over his nemesis and commands magnificent political power in his area. And he travels in a flagged car. Life is good.

So why is he so miffed?

That’s what a lot of people wondered when they saw him telling TV host Adil Shahzeb on his show that he did not know where many of the unelected members of the cabinet had come from and who they were. It was a rant. It was directed at his colleagues in the federal cabinet. Sarwar did not take names but he knew he was targeting people who had been placed in the cabinet by their boss, who also happens to be Sarwar Khan’s boss. And yet Sarwar Khan unsheathed his sword in public and took a mighty swing.

So what gives?

Welcome to the crazy, snarky and complicated world inside the Red Zone where nothing is what it seems till you can squeeze the right hand and whisper in the right ear. The inhabitants of this world are well aware that the elected vs unelected heartburn inside the cabinet has been simmering for some time now. Sarwar Khan just took it public.

Numbers tell their own story. The total strength of the cabinet is 51 (including the prime minister). The breakup is as follows: federal ministers (27), ministers of state (4), advisers (5), and special assistants to the prime minister (14). The first two categories consist of elected people (27+4=31), while the last two categories comprise unelected people (5+14=19). In other words, in a cabinet of 51 people, 37 per cent are unelected.

But sometimes numbers do not tell the entire story. If you go over the list (available on the National Assembly of Pakistan website) you can mark those people who ‘really matter’ in the cabinet today. The definition of the term ‘really matter’ is subjective as is the list of people marked as such. But it is a useful exercise to get a feel of this debate that Sarwar Khan may have unwittingly spurred. My scanning of the list produces this subjective numeric result:

Of the 31 elected people in the federal cabinet, there are 12 who really matter. Of the 19 unelected people, 14 really matter. Hence, of the 50 people in the cabinet (minus the PM of course), 26 really matter. Of those who matter, 53.84 per cent are unelected (quantified result of a subjective equation).

Perhaps Sarwar Khan is on to something.

The grumbling inside the cabinet has been going on for a while at a sub-optimal level. A few brave — and perhaps reckless — ones have aired their reservations in environments that are politically temperature-controlled. To no avail, of course. In order to understand why the elected have not been able to ward off the increasing influence of the unelected, we will need to go a bit deeper into the dynamics of the federal cabinet.

There are five broad categories of people in the cabinet: (1) the original Imran Khan loyalists/ideologues. (2) ‘pre-dharna’ electables (3) ‘post-dharna’ electables (4) unelected loyalists (5) unelected ‘technocrats’. Going through the list on the NA website, it is not difficult to slot names in these five categories.

Here’s where the dynamics get interesting. Most of the grumbling and muttering seems to be coming from categories (1) and (2). The reasons are not hard to fathom. Both these categories carry within them a sense of entitlement for having contributed blood, sweat (and often treasure) to the cause of PTI and Imran Khan.

Now let’s dive even deeper. Among the categories (1) and (2), the loyalists will speak the loudest but in controlled environments only. They have too much to lose and are dependent almost wholly on Imran Khan’s munificence. The category (2) pre-dharna electables on the other hand will grumble less voluminously but when push comes to shove, they can throw caution to the wind because they are less dependent on Imran Khan for their political future. Sarwar Khan is firmly in category (2).

Category (3) post-dharna electables have a different dynamic. Many of them were lent to the PTI in the summer of 2018 when it became clear that despite Panama and despite all the pulls and pushes PTI was still not in a position to win the elections. These electables hoofed up to the PTI stables sniffing the sweet smell of electoral success. In power today, they have constituencies to manage. A flag on the car helps. So does the portfolio, but anything would do actually, thank you very much. Who knows what will happen in 2023, they figure, so best not to rock the boat at this stage. Silence (like discretion) is the better part of valour for a genuine reason.

But wait, there’s more. The most vulnerable are those in category (5). They do not have the strength of the electability factor or the safety of the loyalty factor to fall back upon. They are the weakest link. And yet — yes wait for it — they are the strongest among all categories today on a per capita basis. How does that grab you?

The prime minister likes specialists. He feels they can get the work done through their specific expertise. He even referred to the US model once in a media interaction when questioned about the unelected cabinet members. Perhaps he thinks these specialists — unencumbered as they are from the dictates of constituency politics — can focus better on the task at hand and deliver outcomes much better than those burdened with the weight of public mandate.

As per these dynamics then, categories (4) and (5) are bound to encroach on the turfs of categories (1), (2) and (3). But does it matter in the higher scheme of things? Sarwar Khan can flex his electoral vocal cords to make a point. The others will keep grumbling and carry on. They have learnt that votes count but often they do not add up.

Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2020