Just like there are movers and shakers, there are losers and winners, and having neither been a mover or shaker or indeed a winner, one has been consigned to the dustbin of losers. What else can explain the fact that in five years of Presidential jaunts to all parts of the world except Greenland — the Eskimos are not pleased at being ignored — I was never once invited on board. People miss trains and in Pakistan, we have all missed the bus, so missing a plane is sort of special, but five years in a row is not a laughing matter.
The sad thing is that just about everybody else was, and among them was my old and dearest school friend Inam Bari, a lazy and indolent young lad who was a class cricket player getting out simply because he was too lazy to hook or cut. Bari was my class fellow and my cricket mate, and all the five years the jaunts were on, I kept hoping that with him there in his capacity as the president”s pal, it would have been but a corollary to have got an invite as Bari”s pal. However, that was not to be. Bari broke the tradition of the old school and never took me even though I was prepared to take the last seat on the plane in the centre aisle and forgo the window seat. Instead, 1,325 free-loaders went on 37 trips without having to suffer the shame of hauling a suitcase and finding it over the measly 20kg limit. That it cost the country Rs1.5 billion.
Shauka, the light of the poor, the champion of the downtrodden, the saviour of the hopeless, went on many of these trips and, because he was a real scout, took just about as many on his own, so that nobody could push him around. A well-oiled and well-greased administration that had learned the fine art of crawling on its belly whenever the president was in sight, saw nothing amiss in noting that the spirit of Sinbad was alive, well and kicking in old Islamabad. And what an illustrious list of Pakistan”s brightest was on those trips, talking of poverty alleviation while sipping nectars made in the heavens. Shauka made passionate speeches about “his people” of Tharparkar and Attock, with whom he would break bread and eat their a la carte servings of green chillies laced with onions, meats being off the menu most of the year. Others talked of literacy and empowerment, of devolution and good governance, strategic depth and high-flying diplomacy, while specially selected and trained staff noiselessly kept the goodies flowing. No one talked of Harrods or Tiffany”s or the many other establishments that spoil the crowds of dignitaries that regularly arrive at their doors and blow money like it is going out of fashion. After all these were noble missions designed to tell the world that tales of 70% living below the poverty line of $2 were lies, that the masses were bathing in perfectly pure potable water and sipping Evian to while away the hours, that foreign-exchange reserves had risen so high they had decided to store them in Tarbela Lake, and other equally stirring stories.
And what a who”s who and what”s what of Pakistan were on these missions of spreading the good word. There were the Maliks of many hues and shades, the Rehmans, the Rinds, the Saifullahs, the Jadoons, the Azeems, the Chaudhrys, often represented by that sage in shades who speaks an alien dialect last heard on the planet Pluto, the Tahirkhelis, the Shahs. There were many varieties here, the Wattoos, the Sheikhs, the Legharis, the Bharwanas, the Kasuris, the Khars, the Ghauris and, I suppose, a few Chatthas, a sprinkling of some obscure castes and assorted flavours to add spice to the curries and you had Pakistan in the palm of your hand, a nutshell undoubtedly too small to hold such heavy weights. Not everyone was invited. After all, this was not a raffle draw, though the similarity was uncanny. People spent weeks in the right company in Islamabad, feting the power brokers for a seat on the royal falcon. Connections were sought and then quickly secured as lists were drawn up. Amongst the junket-riders there were often scenes of feverish activity, much like when a piece of flesh falls into a pond full of hungry, angry and ferocious piranhas. The feeding frenzy would reach savage proportions as last-minute adjustments were made on the flight manifest. Those who made it strode about the capital whistling a happy tune. Others sat through the major part of the night choosing wardrobes and drawing up shopping lists.
MNA Raja Asad, who must be from another planet, said in the National Assembly that he was surprised (he had already been shocked) to see the details of the foreign trips because this was taxpayers” money and had been spent in a manner that had greatly disappointed him. That is indeed sad, Mr Asad, but you should not grieve over this, and if you do, you will only end up on the funny farm with a very surprised look on your face. It would do you no good to learn that for promoting his book, the name of which escapes me for the time being, the presidential troupe of talented performers chalked up a whopping Rs227 million. This trip was a nail biter because it tied the score with the most expensive trip in the history of Pakistan — the Rs227 million swing through Cuba (great cigars), Belgium (great chocolates), the USA (Big Macs) and the UK (Stilton Blue Cheese), the above amount having been frittered away on 52 of Pakistan”s best starring in a 16-day extravaganza. His last trip to the UK, taken on his own initiative without the Brits inviting him, set us back by Rs146 million. This was the same trip where the president lodged at a hotel where the room rent for one night was Rs1.8 million. Amazingly, Gen Rashid Qureshi, who must have logged more air miles than Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter and Marco Polo, suffered from a terrible attack of acute memory loss and couldn”t for the life of him remember what, if anything, they had signed for in this hotel. Many rich people of this impoverished land would need someone to hold them steady when signing for a room that is a cool Rs1.8 million. I wonder if he had time to call in the Guinness World Book of Records to quickly file an entry.
I can only marvel at the president”s tremendous stamina to undertake so many journeys. I have jetlag just thinking about it, but 80 countries in five years takes a lot of doing. With Shauka blazing records here too, the duo should be held responsible for making a significant dent in the ozone layer and threatening the global environment. The papers have carried only a few names of those who were lucky to receive the royal nod. While we cannot recover the money that”s gone like the vaporising trail of a 747, we should at least be given the names of those people, other than the list published, who made up that glorious list of 1,325 VIPs who saw the world in 37 trips and 80 countries without spending a dime. Pakistan First, I always say.
The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: email@example.com
Source: The News, 27/4/2008