Thursday, September 21st, 2017
Home »Articles and Letters » Articles » Case of special assistants: Selecting the non-elected
PM Abbasi finds strength in numbers. Not satisfied with 29 Ministers, 18 Ministers of State and 4 advisers, he continues to add Special Assistants - eight, and counting. And it doesn't matter if he can't find a portfolio for several of them, letting the Shakespearean fool muse 'it is not the job that needs their skills but the party that needs their fealty' - and fealty needs Ministerial crutches.

The Constitution imposes a limit on the size of the cabinet: not more than 11 percent of the total membership of the parliament. With a parliament that is 447 strong (342 MNAs+104 Senators+1 President of Pakistan) there is still some headroom left there!

The Constitution also provides for up to five advisers. Ostensibly, the idea is to go beyond the 'politicos' and handpick the best and the brightest from amongst those who, like Sartaj Aziz, do not have an appetite for the rough and tumble of politics. Instead, we fill up the ranks with those who have political ambition but can't get elected. We have made it part of the spoil system, rather than a means of better governance.

The Prime Ministerial largesse is pointedly unencumbered when it comes to Special Assistants, each with the status of Minister of State. The Constitution imposes no limits, ostensibly for the simple reason that after the generous allowance of Ministers and Advisers - up to a total of 54 - it could not contemplate the need for any more, call them jaali Ministers if you must, whatever the manner of their 'assistance'.

It is interesting the Prime Minister does not have the authority to appoint a gardener in the Prime Minister's House without the post getting advertised and a recruitment procedure followed (remember the references that were filed against Prime Minister/Speaker for 'unlawful' appointments?) but he can appoint Special Assistants with gay abandon. This comes perilously close to unbridled cronyism. We are surprised neither Transparency International nor the Supreme Court has taken notice!

One can perhaps defend the appointment of Special Assistants like Khawaja Zaheer (for his public service record) and Musadik Malik (for being media savvy), or even Barrister Zafarullah (for being compulsively litigious). But how do the others meet the selection criteria, if there are any?

And what exactly does a Special Assistant do? Neither the Constitution nor the Rules of Business specify their functions. For all we know, a Special Assistant can be appointed to keep the PM in good humour; regale him with raucous jokes or 'Mamnoon' him with delectable dahi baras.

And what do you do when the SA is given a portfolio that is already with a Cabinet Minister? Take, for example, Miftah Ismail, the Candyland scion, Special Assistant for Economic Affairs. We have a full-fledged Minister in-charge there, the redoubtable Ishaq Dar. What can Miftah do that Dar can't? Miftah may have the ear of the PM but unlike Dar he is neither accountable to the people (through the Parliament) nor has the authority to shape policy. What does Secretary Economic Affairs do if Miftah has one idea and Dar the opposing one? One has legitimate authority the other the ear of the PM. How does the Secretary play the balancing act?

Surely, we don't need someone the level of a Minister of State with the sole purpose of arranging business leaders' photo-ops with the Prime Minister?

The latest SA comes in the lithe form of one Ali Jehangir Siddiqui, Chairman of JS Bank and JS Private Equity, with business interests in UAE (glass and steel), Canada (energy) and Saudi Arabia (marine services). Reportedly, he has also been on the Board of Airblue, the airlines owned by the PM.

Both Miftah and Ali are said to be bright young men, with degrees from U Penn and Cornell respectively. Both also belong to leading business houses - rag to riches stories that deserve to be celebrated not scoffed at. But what horse of experience do they ride on to get into the governmental stables?

Miftah did a stint as a junior official at the IMF before finding himself heading the Punjab Board of Investment and Trade, to move on to Islamabad to head the Board of Investment. If he has nothing to show for his two governmental assignments do we ascribe it to the overall 'environment' or his lack of expertise? We will never know.

Ali has found time to be on Sindh Board of Investment, Privatization Commission, and Sindh Community Development Board, none having anything to show for his endeavours. Ascribe it to unhelpful environment or inadequate expertise? We will never know.

They can of course claim, and we concede rightly so, impressive business credentials to qualify them for public service - and it will be both crass and irresponsible to lend credence to the talk of Customs duty evasion in one and stock-price manipulation in the other. But in a country where corridors of power are said to lead directly to personal coffers, as averred in a recent decision of the Supreme Court, isn't caution called for?

It is the potential conflict of interest - more than the arbitrariness of appointment and ambiguity of functions and responsibilities - that needs to be vigilantly guarded against. By all means let the Government benefit from the skills and acumen of entrepreneurs and managers from the private sector, indeed encourage it, but make sure there are impenetrable firewalls between public service and private gains. For starters, they should cease to have anything to do with their business interests. Without a demonstrable disconnect between the fruit of their family business and duties of public office there will always be a huge question mark hanging around their motivation of joining the government.

'You cannot serve both God and money' admonishes the Bible. Public service gospel is no less scathing: you cannot serve both government and money.

Straddling government and money also raises the issue of policy capture by special interests. A professional bureaucracy can be the most effective check on such transgressions, but can a heavily politicized bureaucracy hold out such a hope? Until we can develop effective checks shouldn't we be a bit weary of rushing into Pakistan Inc?

Pakistan needs all the ability that it can get; but not ability wrapped in pecuniary self-interest. Otherwise, 'what is my fault' will not ring hollow.

the author