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Architecture of Privileges

 

 

 

By Imtiaz Gul

Daily Times, Oct 22, 2017

 

The Sharifs and Zardari knowingly distort and misstate facts and then play the victim card because they consider abusing the national kitty and power as their prerogative.

Tom Price, the US health and human services secretary, resigned (September 2017) under pressure after racking up at least $400,000 in travel bills for chartered flights, something that flew in the face of President Trump’s promise to ‘drain the swamp of a corrupt and entitled capital.’ Mr Price neither offered any regrets nor even a partial reimbursement. He quietly opted out of the office.

No regret. No remorse. No payment back to the national kitty. Does this offer an analogy to the Pakistani ruling royals? The Sharifs and Zardaris — both friends with the only known property tycoon of this country — keep calling each other corrupt but take offense when reminded of these acts. Pretense of innocence is writ large on their faces. But this masks considerable arrogance and indifference to the plight of common citizens. Knowingly they distort and misstate facts and play the victim card because they consider abusing the national kitty and power as their prerogative.

Tom Price’s departure also reminds of the princely way our ruling elites live off the poor public’s expense. They treat the office and the attendant privileges as preordained for them as the chosen ones.

Let us recall a few instances to underscore how much these elites care for the public money. Former president (late) Farooq Leghari once (in mid 1990s) landed at Devos for the World Economic Forum (WEF) — a congregation that discusses global best practices of governance, equitable, inclusive and transparent development.

It was Ramzan and the presidential entourage needed the kitchen of the hotel they were staying in for the pre-dawn food (sehri) to prepare for the day, recalls a diplomat who was part of the party then. Pakistani officials were told that the kitchen opens only at 6. No, we will need fresh food for the president, officials told the hotel management. Then rent the kitchen for a few hours, came the proposal. Lo and behold. Pakistani officials agreed. And by the time the entourage left, the bill had ballooned to a whopping 200,000 dollars. And we paid it, recollected the official.

A big question contentious Pakistanis ask is how long the elites will continue living off the hapless millions in the country. Why should state resources be used for buying favours? Why should the ministries be the conduit for bribing lawyers, journalists and bureaucracy?

Similarly, a news headline (Oct 12) “Every sort of fraud carried out in KP,” says Zardari, took me down the memory lane to September 2011, when the then president Asif Ali Zardari took a big entourage to the Tajik capital Dushanbe for a quadrilateral meeting. One of the eyewitness Pakistani officials recalled that the poor Pakistani embassy in Dushanbe coughed up as much as 150,000 dollars for a 36-hour trip of the President, much more than several months worth of the entire embassy expense. Why? Because the delegation did not like the official cars the Tajik government had provided for. Nor did they like the hotel most of them were supposed to stay in. So all alternative arrangements gobbled up the staggering 150,000 dollars.

Zardari, as president, had led a similar 250 strong delegation to Saudi Arabia — as if on a picnic at state expense. Saudi officials conveyed to the Pakistanis point blank that only 50 will be treated as state guests.  The rest were paid out of the Pakistan Embassy account.

A fourth one relates to one of the Pakistan-US strategic dialogue in 2010/2011; the then army chief General Ashfaq Kayani was practically leading the dialogue, accompanied by a couple of dozen military and civilian officials.

Expensive limousines had to be arranged for the Pakistani officials. To the embarrassment of the embassy officials, all of the visiting dignitaries wanted to disembark from the cars right in front of the talks venue. And took them quite an effort to convince US officials to allow all the cars drive in.

As Pakistani delegates began arriving, recalls an ex-embassy official, we say former US ambassador Cameron Munter, getting out of his car outside the venue and walk up to us. He had flown in from Islamabad to participate in the dialogue but was still using his personal car.

These instances remind me of an email that somebody settled abroad sent in as a response to one of my recent articles. “The situation in Pakistan is analogous to a well stocked house that has been broken into by a group of professional thieves while the owners have been sedated with illiteracy, poverty, disease and destabilisation. Now the question is: would the thieves asses the situation the house is in and carry out necessary repairs and renovations or lay their grubby hands on whatever they can and scoot. These thieves do not identify themselves with Pakistan. If they did, they would build brick and mortar genuine schools and hire real, genuine teachers and have their children study in them rather than to send them to Europe and America. Same goes for hospitals. Another scene that comes to mind is that of wild dogs fighting over a freshly brought down gazelle carcass.”

A big question contentious Pakistanis ask is as to how long the elites will continue living off the hapless millions in the country. Why should state resources be used for buying favours? Why should the ministries be the conduit for bribing lawyers, journalists and bureaucracy? Will this stinking architecture of privileges ever change? The senior judiciary can perhaps be the first shot at it.

Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk