RED ZONE FILES: Ripples of resignations

Updated 30 Jul 2020

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Tania Aidrus and Dr Zafar Mirza, Special Advisers to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Digital Pakistan and Health respectively. — DawnNewsTV/File
Tania Aidrus and Dr Zafar Mirza, Special Advisers to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Digital Pakistan and Health respectively. — DawnNewsTV/File

The fault lies in the fault lines. On Wednesday, the ruling party bowled out two batsmen in consecutive deliveries. Now it is on a hat-trick — against itself. Tania Aidrus and Dr Zafar Mirza, Special Advisers to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Digital Pakistan and Health respectively, tendered their resignations within an hour of each other. They cited officially convenient reasons for their departure, expressed syrupy sentiments for their (now former) boss, and bid adieu. The boss wasted little time in accepting their resignations.

So what happened?

The devil is in the detail. Once upon a time in the faraway land of the 1990s/2000s, PTI was a party as lean and agile as its leader. Today it is a lumbering hulk that plods along the treacherous Red Zone landscape struggling against its own ungainliness. Every so often, it cuts its nose to spite its face — lets it heal, and slices it again. This political schizophrenia betrays a condition that is deeper than the sporadic outbreak of symptoms manifested in the sacking of two cabinet members.

Much of what transpires in this government therefore finds a context within its deep fault lines. Was Ms Aidrus sacked because of her dual nationality alone? Was Dr Mirza fired because of the furore over the SAPM issue? The higher the stakes, the more complex they become. Ms Aidrus and Dr Mirza may have contributed to their departure by exposing their individual Achilles heels, but they were also shoved on to their own swords by external hands for a multitude of reasons.

Red Zone insiders say on Tuesday Ms Aidrus was called to a room deep within the bowels of the power pyramid for a meeting. There she was met by at least two gentlemen who weren’t exactly — how should one say it? — in a mood for some congenial chit chat. She was informed, abrasively it is said, of a number of compelling reasons why she had to walk away from the government. And no, the option to say no, was not available. She reportedly said she wanted to speak to the prime minister first but was informed that this option too was not available.

Many of the reasons read out to her germinated from the deep fault lines within the party. In fact, they crisscrossed various fault lines that constitute the genetic maze of PTI.

It is no secret that Tania Aidrus was brought to Pakistan from her job at Google by Jehangir Tareen. She had said so herself in her first speech with the prime minister and Mr Tareen in attendance. In the same event, the prime minister had told her “ghabrana nahi hai” (don’t get worried).

Buoyed by support from the highest quarters, she had launched herself into amplifying the country’s digital frontiers with a zest not usually seen in government quarters. One person who saw her work over a few months said he was impressed by her focus and energy. “She would roll up her sleeves and get on with it,” he said. “She would get things done.”

That’s great, right?

“In our society, men are not used to working with such driven women,” this official admitted. If this wasn’t enough, fissures opened within the digital landscape triggering an intense turf war. On one side were Ms Aidrus and her Digital Pakistan set-up, and on the other side was the National IT Board (NITB) led by its CEO Shabahat Ali Shah.

Turf wars are team sports with coaches and patrons. Like Ms Aidrus, who was brought in by Mr Tareen, Mr Shah’s journey to NITB was also facilitated by an influential cabinet minister. It was a classic PTI vs PTI match — with PTI applauding on the sidelines.

Insiders say the noise of this turf war got so loud it travelled all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office. Things took a turn for the worse one day and verbal orders for action against one of the two adversaries were issued. However somehow they were never executed in writing. The feud continued to fester.

Then Mr Tareen left and Ms Aidrus — a veritable stranger in the government — was left to fend for herself within a deeply tribal environment. Soon multiple factions gunned into life to go after her for multiple reasons that could benefit multiple people. The Digital Pakistan Foundation — a set-up aimed at attracting donor funds for digital work — became the loose end that would cost her dearly. Suddenly they had a peg to hang her on.

The rest, as they say, is history. As is she — as far as the PTI government is concerned.

Tania Aidrus’ unceremonious exit is emitting jarring signals for all unflattering reasons. If performance was an issue, many others in the government would have been thrown out first. If dual nationality was an issue, many others are also afflicted with it. If conflict of interest was an issue, there are many others in the cabinet with far larger conflicts of interest. But if her ouster exposes — yet again — multi-layered fault lines within the PTI government; if it symbolises the ferociousness of turf wars fanned by vested interest; and if it signals the acute impermanence and deep vulnerability of qualified talent’s place in public life — then the loss is much deeper than that of one individual. Saner minds within the government might want to ponder on this.

Today there are clear and visible power centres inside the Red Zone. These centres — basically individuals donning Iron Man suits of a political kind — afford protection and patronage to their followers. If you want to survive and flourish, you need to align yourself with one of these Iron Men. This is the story of every government, but so much more acute in the present one.

Will there be more resignations? Perhaps — but for reasons that may not figure in the tweets of those on their way out.

Published in Dawn, July 30th, 2020