Thursday December 02, 2021

For new CEC, Sheikh Rashid’s prayer has been answered

Sheikh heaped lavish praise on Raja in the letter he wrote to Imran on October 21 last year

January 23, 2020

ISLAMABAD: Three months ago, Minister for Railways Sheikh Rashid Ahmed wrote a letter to Prime Minister Imran Khan. The person under discussion was outgoing Secretary Railway, Raja Sikandar Sultan. He was nearing retirement. Sheikh was so impressed with his performance that he wanted him to be retained. But extension in service or re-employment could only be done by the PM.

Sheikh heaped lavish praise on Raja in the letter he wrote to Imran on October 21 last year; more than five weeks before his retirement. The minister branded him as “a diligent, focused, honest and extremely hardworking officer who had been an invaluable asset in my quest to convert Pakistan Railways into an efficient-cum-profitable service provider to our nation. He has an unblemished career and an honest, pious and efficient officer, a rare combination of qualities available among officers these days.”

This tribute coming from a politician may cast doubt on the integrity of Raja as a pliable officer having earned this accolade by pleasing his political boss. However, people who know him or has worked with him don’t dispute his characteristics. Before proceeding to the concluding part of the letter wherein the minister wished how his retiring secretary could be rewarded, Raja’s conduct as secretary deserves mention. In Railways, he had the reputation of an accountability czar. He turned out to be a stern administrator. In one year he served here, Raja dismissed seven officers, three were removed, one was sent on compulsory retirement and two were demoted. Dismissal from service is considered the severest form of punishment as a dismissed officer is not eligible for any other government service. Pension is denied to officers either dismissed or removed. The penalised officers were proceeded against on the account of misconduct, negligence and unauthorised absence from their duty.

Although his working relationship with Sheikh was excellent, Raja didn’t have a happy ending with Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. He served with him as secretary when Shahid was the petroleum minister before getting elected as prime minister. While differences started surfacing on issues right from the beginning, it came to a boil on the issue of an award of a contract. Raja was opposed to the process. Then the issue of the appointment of an MD of a department under the administrative control of the ministry further exacerbated the acrimony. Raja refused to comply, went on leave and later was made OSD.

He has a checkered history of relationship with PML-N leadership. Being son-in-law of Saeed Mehdi, former principal secretary to PM Nawaz Sharif in the second term, Raja was known to top leadership. He’d frequent to Karachi in 1999 where his father-in-law was under detention with Nawaz after Musharraf’s coup. He has also served in Punjab under Shahbaz Sharif as the provincial secretary of different departments. The PML-N leaders recall him as an upright officer who would only mind his business.

However, his appointment as chief secretary of Azad Jammu & Kashmir during the last term of Nawaz Sharif has left some bitter memories. It was during AJK elections and PML-N leaders wanted to go there in official vehicles. Raja had them stopped at Kohala Bridge. “If I let you go, I can’t stop PTI and PPP coming this way,” he is quoted to have responded to the shocked ruling party politicians. Raja commands reputation not only as an upright officer but he is also reclusive by nature whose outward activities end at the office and no nightlife which is the hallmark of Islamabad elite. Some officers draw his comparison with Dr Shoaib Suddle, a well-respected retired bureaucrat of police service known for his stern and principled style of administration. Therefore, Shiekh was not wrong to portray him as “an honest and pious.”

In the concluding paragraph of his letter, Shiekh pleaded to the prime minister that he wanted to retain him as secretary after retirement on November 30, 2019. However, if this is not administratively possible, Shiekh wrote, “I personally request and strongly recommend him for the post of Member Federal Public Service Commission or as head of any autonomous federal organisation, Inshaa Allah, he shall prove his worth in any such assignment.”

His prayer has been answered as the government proposed the name of Raja for Chief Election Commissioner and the PML-N was taken into confidence before making it public. It couldn’t be ascertained whether Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was taken into confidence and what was his take was on it. Son of a retired colonel, Raja inspires hope, his would-be appointment has also been greeted with skepticism given the nature of the test he is going to be assigned as he will preside the next election no matter if held mid-term or after the government completes its tenure. Only time will tell whether he acts like a fiercely independent chief election commissioner or the subservient one. However, one thing is final. He will be remembered the rest of his life for how he behaves as chief election commissioner, not what he did before.