POSTCARD USA: Travelling the world in style — Khalid Hasan

If our leaders will only pay more attention to their own country and less to foreign visits and foreign visitors, our troubles may not disappear entirely, but we will certainly see them lessen

Back in the days when Suharto ruled Indonesia, I asked a Jakarta journalist with whom I worked how often their president had gone abroad on state visits since 1966 when he took power. “Not many times,” he answered.

“Let me explain,” he said when he noticed the somewhat bewildered look on my face. “It is like this. When he wants business done abroad, he sends a minister or if an official will do, an official. He says his place of duty is his own country, which is where he may be able to do some good.”

I asked him about the number of foreign heads of state and government invited to visit Indonesia. “Not many,” he replied, “because these things are one-on-one. What is more, our business gets done regardless. We don’t miss not having them.” He told me that Suharto had once gone to a Non-Aligned summit in an African country but returned home two days later. When asked why, he had replied that he could not take any more of it. Cliché mounted on cliché, one empty resolution followed by another, and the thing kept going on and on and on. “I don’t have to sit through that,” he had said.

My friend in New Delhi, the eminent journalist Inder Malhotra, who read last week’s Postcard on the penchant of our leaders for foreign travel writes, “Nehru always travelled by the service flights of Air India. Where Air India did not go, he took an Air Force plane. He never took an entourage of more than eight, including security and his valet, Hari; and, of course, daughter Indira. Now, the prime minister’s ‘aides’ are countless. As a very junior reporter in years gone by, I had read an article in Washington Post from Jakarta, declaring that whenever Sukarno faced a serious domestic problem, he ‘promptly solved it by leaving on a long foreign visit.’ That practice seems to have become universal since then.”

I also heard from Arnold Zeitlin, who was Associated Press correspondent in Pakistan in ZAB’s early years in office, and who now spends a good part of the year teaching journalism at a Chinese university. Zeitlin writes, “Your great boss, ZAB, answered this question years ago when he told me that whenever one comes back from a foreign trip, the first thing one does on stepping on to the tarmac is to declare the journey a great success, no matter what.”

And that brings me to the great Habib Jalib, who once told his Model Town companion and friend Rao Amjad Ali, now of Toronto, “Agar dauray se wapis aakay siraf yehi kehna hai kay bauhat kamiab tha to mujhay bhaij diya karain. Mera kharcha bhi kamm hoga: siraf Black Label ki aik addad barri botal.” Or, “If all one has to do after returning from a foreign tour to declare that it was a success, they should send me. I will cost them far less: just a large bottle of Black Label.”

I have also had a mail from Haris N Khan, senior editor, Pakdef Military Consortium, whose father was one of PIA’s most well-known and experienced captains. “A little correction,” he writes, “Prime Minister Gilani did not use PIA’s B-777 but rather PAF’s VVIP A-310 to fly to Kuala Lumpur and Dubai in style. Last time when we exchanged e-mails, this A-310 (AP-001) was parked at the Quaid-i-Azam International Airport, Karachi, awaiting a new engine. I think this was the reason…caretaker Prime Minister Mohammadmian Soomro took PIA’s B-777 for umra, but he could have easily taken PAF’s Gulfstream 430 for this visit.”

All I have to add to it is that “Bhambiri” Soomro should be known not as “caretaker” but undertaker prime minister.

Not all correspondents are quite happy with what they read, Meekal Aziz Ahmed being one, who thinks I “held back” in lamenting the lack of concern our travelling leaders have for the Pakistani taxpayer.

“If you are restrained and diplomatic and hold back, there is less chance that what you say will have an impact! They will just brush it off and twist things around and say, ‘Sir, actually he was quite positive!’ How is it they don’t realise that it is in their self-interest to pause, be honest, take stock and do something productive for a change?”

Well, all of us know the answer to Meekal’s question, I will let it go.

Every time a new government comes to office, people hope that it will be different but realise soon that all they have is a change of name. Nothing actually changes; things in fact get worse. There is also the quite mistaken belief that our domestic difficulties can be resolved through external diplomacy. It has not worked in the past; it is not going to work today; and it is will not work tomorrow.

Come to think of it, there is little need for our heads of state and government to travel abroad, unless it is absolutely essential and in the supreme national interest. The problems that are clobbering us at home will remain where they are, no matter how many B-777s the prime minister commandeers and no matter how many foreign lands he visits, including Easter Island. Most state-to-state business is carried out quietly behind closed doors without fanfare by unnamed, unsung officials sitting in windowless rooms. It has been seen though that the more dictatorial a government, the greater the desire of its leader to travel abroad.

All our leaders after Ayub Khan (who travelled only when necessary and always with a handful of people and, as far as possible, by commercial flights) have been profligate with their foreign travel. Shaukat Aziz “Shortcut” was more abroad than at home. And now that they require him at home to answer a few questions, he remains abroad. More often than not, foreign state visits have been used to provide all-expenses-paid holidays to court favourites, close friends, first cousins, in-laws, outlaws and whosoever has the connections to hitch a free ride.

The “successes” scored by the leader are beamed back home, watched by none. If our leaders will only pay more attention to their own country and less to foreign visits and foreign visitors, our troubles may not disappear entirely, but we will certainly see them lessen.

All this aside, we wait with bated breath in Washington for the arrival by officially hijacked PIA B-777 of the prime minister at the head of a party of 119, among whom there may be more than an even chance of finding a friend or two from Lahore. That is the only silver lining at least I am looking for in the approaching dark cloud.

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

Source: Daily times, 20/7/2008

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