Flying Carpets Inc. — Khalid Hasan

The high water mark of crass indifference to public funds and how they are spent came with the 18-day long trip that the president took, partly to promote his book, which, let me add, was never destined to stand on the same shelf as War and Peace

While we brace ourselves here for the impending visit of the prime minister to Washington later this month, one shudders to think what it would cost the poor people of Pakistan who lack clean drinking water and pollution-free air, who face galloping prices and brutal power outages through a sizzling summer. The prime minister, whose wardrobe I have begun to envy, has been advised to bring no more than 19 people to Washington — and that includes the spooks — but as night follows day, he is likely to bring 119.

Why do Pakistani leaders, the military variety no less than the other kind, travel so much and what is it that they seek? At the end of each visit, there comes the declaration that it was a “great success”. In what way it was a great success has never been revealed. There is a simple test of measuring success. If the hundreds of foreign visits undertaken by our leaders in the last nine years have been such successes, how come we are in the mess in which we are?

Some of them begin well like Gen Musharraf, but soon lapse into the same old rut. In his early days in power, the General not only used to take commercial PIA flights, as far as possible, but bring only those who had officials reasons to be there to assist him. Journalists, his media relations man Rashid Qureshi told me once in New York, were being made to pay for themselves. Since no good thing lasts long in Pakistan, neither did this.

The information ministry of the time, unhappy at the loss of its power to confer patronage and cuddle the usual suspects, sabotaged the commendable system that had come in with the change of guard in Islamabad. It started to slip the required amount of dollars in the right pockets and make the recipients fly on their own to places which the General was going to visit.

This fig leaf, like all fig leaves, fell to the floor before long, and the old blatancy returned. I don’t blame the ministry so much as my own tribe. I once heard a wise man in Sialkot say: “If the housewife has forgotten to put the lid over the saucepan of cooked food, the house pet should show some class instead of gobbling it all up.” The size of those ferried to these trips also returned to its traditional size. The Pakistani citizen in whose name all is done remained unaware of what he was paying for and why. Neither did anyone ask him.

The high water mark of crass indifference to public funds and how they are spent came with the 18-day long trip that the president took, partly to promote his book, which, let me add, was never destined to stand on the same shelf as War and Peace. But that is all in the past. Let’s look at the new boys who are getting old, having gone past the 100-day mark without showing much, if anything for it.

The honeymoon is over and done with. But in the 100 days he has been prime minister, he has not let any grass grow under his feet. He has been on the wing. Are our politicians perhaps descended from Sinbad Jahazi? The matter needs to be investigated.

I want it noted that in all our history, nobody has made more foreign visits at state expense that Muhammadmian Soomro, chairman of the Senate, to whose resume the permanent establishment also chose to add caretaker prime minister. In the couple of months he flew that flag, he was more away than home. To this I should add that the man he had replace, S A Shortcut, once came to the UN for an utterly routine meeting held in a room that could seat only 40, while the size of Shortcut’s “delegation” was 45. What could those poor people do, therefore, but shop till they dropped.

When Soomro went to Saudi Arabia for Umrah, it cost the PIA, whose Boeing 777 he had commandeered, $2.8 million. Every time a Pakistani VVIP travels, the plane carrying him has to be reconfigured, with special sleeping quarters and reclining chairs and the like. The flight to Jeddah takes four hours and Soomro could easily have taken a regular PIA flight. He wasn’t even invited officially to the Kingdom.

But what did he do? He spent four days there and the Boeing remained parked at the Jeddah airport all four days. Have these people no sense of decency or shame!

When I mentioned Yousaf Raza Gilani taking a 777 to Kuala Lumpur, with a stopover in Dubai on the way back to meet the man who encompasses the entire English alphabet in his name, my friend Meekal Aziz Ahmed said:

“It is not only a case of only pulling an aircraft out of service and disrupting the whole schedule, which means millions of rupees in lost revenue because PIA does not have ‘spare’ aircraft it can press into service. The service is simply cancelled and the schedule re-adjusted. It needs to be refitted with VVIP configuration (you don’t expect the PM to sleep on a sleeper bed like every commoner who flies Business Class, and not a real bed, do you? And, God forbid, dress in the loo!), seats are pulled out, a new curtained-off enclosure put together, etc. So it is not just a ‘plain’ 777 by any means. It costs millions and I understand that PIA is seldom if ever reimbursed.”

He also wanted to know, “But why are you surprised?”

He is right. Why am I surprised? After all, didn’t the Quaid himself say after Pakistan to Admiral Ardeshir Cowasjee’s father that every government in this country was going to be worse than its predecessor. The old man got that one right too.

Khalid Hasan is Daily Times’ US-based correspondent. His e-mail is

Source: Daily Times, 13/7/2008

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