Unelected advisers

IN Pakistan, most ministries are being run de facto by special assistants to the prime minister. These members are unelected and do not represent the people but are appointed by the prime minister to advise him on various sectors of the country such as IT, information, power, accountability, etc. The role of special assistants has often been criticised by the media, opposition politicians and even the Islamabad High Court (IHC). The criticism is based on the concern that these people — since they did not secure the public’s votes — do not have a constituency to worry about and are not accountable in the same way that elected members of parliament are.

The IHC in a recent judgement ruled that special assistants and unelected advisers cannot exercise executive or administrative powers in the functioning of the government, and that only elected representatives chosen by people have the privilege of running ministries. “Appointing an adviser with the status of a minister does not empower him/her to act or function as a minister or to perform functions under the Rules of Business, 1973,” read the judgement.

Which brings us to the curious case of some of our unelected special assistants of the prime minister. Take, for instance, Tabish Gauhar, who resigned last week from the position of special assistant to the prime minister on power, which he was appointed to three months ago. Gauhar is a controversial figure who was in charge of K-Electric when the institution was mired in some deep problems that continue to affect it today.

The organisation’s payables and receivables both surged during his tenure. This proved to be a problem for the power distribution company, since the lack of receivables meant it encountered liquidity issues and its ballooning payables to the Sui Southern Gas Company Limited (SSGC) put it in serious debt.

One word that haunts the current PTI-led regime is ‘U-Turn’. The now former special assistant on power, for instance, has taken a U-turn on a policy of which he was the architect. In a recent interview, he said he opposed K-Electric’s policy of load management according to a particular area’s billing recovery rate — a policy that the power utility first employed during his tenure as chief executive.

Then there is also the matter of offering liquidity of Rs65 billion to independent power producer Hubco if the company agreed to convert its FO units on coal to generate electricity for K-Electric. This is in contrast to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s vision for a ‘clean’ Pakistan — according to which, by 2030, 60 per cent of Pakistan’s power will be generated through ‘clean’ and renewable resources. The fact that Mr Gauhar was in the past on Hubco’s board of directors had led some industry observers to point to a possible conflict of interest as a government adviser.

Another special assistant to the prime minister on petroleum, Nadeem Babar, hasn’t been performing up to the mark either. His delayed decision-making with regard to securing LNG bids for Pakistan has resulted in a gas crisis for the country till January 2021, which would not have happened had he taken the decision to bid for LNG cargoes by August or September 2020.

Due to the ministry’s delayed decision, Pakistan on Monday received bids from five LNG trading companies for two LNG cargoes for February 2021; however, these were at the highest price of up to 32.5pc of Brent.

That said, he did agree to a televised public debate with former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, and managed to defend the current government’s LNG decisions as well as presenting his ministry’s side of the story to an otherwise sceptical audience.

One may also recall the case of Tania Aidrus, who was appointed special assistant to the prime minister to spearhead the government’s Digital Pakistan initiative. She found herself in hot water after it was found she was the chairperson of Digital Pakistan Foundation (DPF), a not-for-profit organisation formed to raise funds from investors/external donors through grants, facilitating procurement and entering into legal arrangements to advance the purpose of the initiative.

The haste with which the DPF was incorporated prior to Ms Aidrus taking over as Imran Khan’s special assistant is what raised eyebrows. The organisation was a special purpose vehicle, incorporated to deal and/or negotiate directly with donors and investors and thus escape the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of state institutions. However, with Ms Aidrus as the prime minister’s special assistant, it created a conflict of interest that ultimately led to her resignation.

The government must ensure that important ministries and posts are run by elected members who have an interest in serving the masses. We must not experiment anymore or hand over vital sectors of Pakistan to those who are unelected.

Zahid Hussain Khan - the writer is a freelance journalist.

Courtesy: Daily Dawn