Khan and his ‘advisers’

Updated 04 Aug 2020

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

IN the middle of hard negotiations over NAB- and FATF-related legislation and the opposition’s bluster, the PTI still managed to make it all about the chaos within the government by abruptly removing two advisers — Tania Aidrus and Zafar Mirza. All in a day’s work, for the ruling party.

Both the advisers took to Twitter to announce their ‘resignations’ while the ‘sources’ took to the media simultaneously to reveal that the ‘resignations’ were not ‘given’ voluntarily. (The two departing members weren’t allowed a graceful exit.) Publicly, the resignations were linked to the recent debate over dual nationalities, especially as Aidrus in a tweet made a connection between the two. On the other hand, Mirza in his tweet referred to the negative coverage of advisers to the government.

Since then, much has been said about the two resignations and what brought them about. From petty politics — Aidrus was a Tareen inductee and now that he had fallen out, her fate could not have been any different — to allegations of wrongdoing — allegedly allowing drugs in from India in Mirza’s case and the registration of Digital Pakistan with SECP without the prime minister’s knowledge in Aidrus’s case — myriad reasons have been given.

Sadly, my inability to cultivate sources prevents me from providing the inside story of these two unceremonious departures or the ones that are rumoured to follow shortly. But uninformed souls such as myself can try and make up for it by pointing out obvious patterns.

The PM thinks that traditional politicians aren’t trained for complex governance.

The most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the prime minister still does not know whom to place where; his cabinet choices are a case of trial and error, and this game of musical chairs is likely to continue. People will come and go and the departure will be abrupt and unceremonious, perhaps because removal from cabinet is rarely ever dignified. However, the leaks to the media will make it worse in the PTI’s case.

Second, is also the issue of the elected and unelected members of the Imran Khan cabinet and what the departure of Mirza and Aidrus will mean for this balance. Some, who had highlighted the domination of the unelected people in the cabinet are now concluding/predicting the elected led/ would lead the charge against the former and would overshadow them.

But there is little proof of this so far. The number of advisers continues to be strong and they are still holding on to key portfolios such as petroleum, CPEC and finance. Even if the ‘sources’ prove correct and more departures are scheduled, how many departures will it take to say safely that the elected members of the cabinet are now in the driving seat? Thirteen of them are still there and in important positions.

Along with this, there is also the prime minister to consider. His rhetoric may focus on the corrupt opposition but his actions show that he distrusts politicians in general. The corrupt system he rails against is partly rooted in constituency politics, where the elected ones come from. In addition, he is uncomfortable with their longevity, sense of independence, and chameleon-like ability to adapt to different parties; perhaps this is why senior PTI faces who have careers dating back to before the PTI’s advent, were relegated to portfolios such as defence and foreign affairs. (Before someone points out the chief minister of Punjab as an exception, he truly is the exception that proves the rule.)

But distrust is not the only issue for Khan; he also doesn’t think traditional politicians are trained for complex governing tasks — and this is the collective failure of political parties because they have not trained their cadres. Hence, those who think the elected members will soon replace or overshadow the unelected outsiders shouldn’t be too hopeful. This divide may continue for a while longer if not the entire term.

This also leads to the third point, which is connected to the second about distrust.

Islamabad is replete with rumours about how the prime minister is trying to keep abreast of the possible corruption by those around him. Some of the occasions on which someone or the other in a position was told to take a hike, there were hushed whispers about how the prime minister had been given a report about possible wrongdoing or corruption, and this led to the ‘sacking’. Such stories are rarely confirmed but they are leaked and circulated with such conviction that they become fact.

But the authenticity of (both as in media and the intelligence) these ‘reports’ remains suspect, perhaps because there is rarely any follow-up action.

The most interesting case in this regard was of the former health minister, Amir Kiyani. When he was removed, it was rumoured to be because of some shady deals within the health department but later he was given an important post within the party hierarchy. What explains this? Khan’s detractors may put it down to a whim but it could also be — though it may not be the only other explanation — that the prime minister is provided raw intelligence which leads to conclusions not necessarily or entirely correct. He acts immediately and hastily. He would not be the first head of state to be tempted thus, nor the last. Those who came before him were also susceptible to such habits. Checking up on and spying on the government’s own people is an age-old practice.

And with Khan’s fixation on corruption, there is a chance that surveillance will focus on financial hanky-panky; such reports will be considered seriously; and even exploited by the factions within the party.

Ideally, this is a tendency best curbed, if any lessons are to be learned from the NAB fiasco — but it is unfortunately an unpopular opinion outside of the opposition circles and chances are it will continue. Perhaps, it is another reason the cabinet will continue to witness more departures and arrivals than the Dubai airport.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2020