Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has no business running NADRA (National Database and Registration Authority) which is an autonomous body. There is a serious conflict of interest. The minister can only give policy directives while executive authority rests with the Chairman.

On October 7, 2016, Chaudhary Sahib suspended Director General (DG) Tahir Akram for committing irregularities in the renting of office premises for the authority. Without going into merits or demerits of the case, gross illegality has been committed by the Minister. Considering the importance of NADRA in conducting free and fair elections, this encroachment of authority has to be taken very seriously. The Supreme Court should intervene and annul the orders of the Minister and restrain him from interfering in the running of the authority.

NADRA was created through an ordinance in 2000, which was later converted into a bill in 2002. Major (retd.) General Zahid Hussain, a friend of the President and a fellow artillery officer was appointed the first Chairman. Rs 4 billion were allocated for establishing the new entity. After squandering Rs 1.2 billion, the authority was unable to issue a single computerised NIC (National Identity Card) in one year. Finally, Brig (R) Saleem Moeen, an electrical engineer of EME Corps and a graduate of UET Lahore was appointed Chairman in early 2001. Under his professional leadership, the first NIC was produced within six months by October 2001. By 2004, the authority was in full production mode and was able to pay back the seed funding and became financially independent.

Saleem Moeen hired young Usman Mobin, the current Chairman who had just completed his education in IT at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Under the leadership of the Chairman and technical competence of young Usman, the authority flourished and grew into one of the finniest data warehouses in the region. It even developed the process for the production of the machine readable passports.

In 2012, Tariq Malik son of a very respected intellectual Prof. Fateh Muhammad Malik and an IT expert himself was appointed Chairman. After the disputed ballot of 2013, NADRA was approached for the verification of votes. In a Lahore constituency NA-118, Malik Riaz Hussain of PML(N) was declared victorious by ECP. Hamid Zaman, the PTI candidate approached the courts which ordered a forensic audit of votes for verification, provided the candidate was willing to bear the costs. Being a hardened activist and reformer, Hamid paid around Rs 3 million to NADRA for the audit. The results were horrifying; Hamid had been robbed of a well-deserved election victory. Chairman NADRA was summoned by the ‘Takht-e-Lahore’ and asked to go slow, the term used was ‘Haula Hath’. On his refusal, he was removed and stopped from entering his office. Islamabad High Court declared his removal illegal and he was reinstated. The government went to appeal to the Supreme Court and also started to threaten him and his family. Finally, he resigned from office on February 4, 2014 and left the country. In his absence, his house was raided by FIA. Tariq’s father, Professor Fateh had to approach the courts to seek protection of law for the family.

Both NADRA and the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) have a key role in ensuring free and fair elections. Their neutrality is essential. With Chaudhry Nisar, a PML(N) stalwart running NADRA, the process of voter lists manipulation has already started. Usman Mobin, the current Chairman is technically very component but he is young and lacks management experience to deal with the political sharks of PML(N), who have a history of stealing elections. By undermining the authority of the Chairman, the autonomy of his department is seriously threatened.

Pakistan needs able professionals like Usman Mobin but they should be allowed to play their innings and not be pressurised by vested interests. The encroachment into the domain of data authority must be taken seriously. I am amazed at the lack of attention by political parties into this infringement. For the preservation of this data resource, strong and mature leadership is needed.

A senior officer serving or retired from the EME Corps of the Army should be appointed as Chairman NADRA after clearance from the relevant agencies. Usman, the current Chairman can serve as a technical adviser and member of the board. Sanctity of data and record has to be ensured. The selection committee should include Ex-Chairman Saleem Moeen who built NADRA from scratch with the technical assistance of IT professionals like Usman Mobin, the current Chairman.

In addition to reliable data warehousing by NADRA, ECP can introduce ‘biometric voting’ using thumb identification to ensure sanctity of the ballot. For the will of people to prevail, stuffing has to be dealt with. Telephone service providers were able to carry out thumb identification for over 100 million people, the number of voters is much less than that. Representative democracy can only survive through a credible electoral process for which the entire exercise has to be carried out by neutral persons and institutions. The Army has a major role to play in conducting the next elections as it remains the only functional institution in the country.