One day someone will get a doctorate simply researching into what kind of security was mounted inside an economically poor state for the protection of one of its office holders. There may even be a best seller in there with far better sales than ‘In the line of fire,’ generated. Who knows? If understanding the graffiti on New York’s subway can fetch you a doctorate, why not this which must have read like a chapter out of a Bond book on any given day.
When the former president moved, half the country froze. This was quite contrary to the spirit of 1999 when he launched a coup while still at 35,000 feet above sea level and successfully toppled an elected government and had made it known that there would be no traffic jams when he was travelling and motorcades would come to a stop – just like anyone else, at traffic lights. No such thing happened. There were security alerts and soon enough things were as they had always been – the rulers whisked about in special aircraft, the jamming of all cell phones, the near frozen state in which thousands were stranded for hours as motorcades came and motorcades left. And what a sight that used to be. If you had a ringside seat, you could see it all – the clockwork precision and the sweeping limousines – sleek, black thoroughbred Mercs, carrying shadow figures inside them, led by dozens of vehicles, outriders, jeeps, 4x4s, more limos, more jeeps, ambulances and an assortment of less-princely vehicles, the plebeian Corollas and Civics carrying the lower flunkies and most often carrying no one. At the speed of light these convoys would hiss across city roads with not a leaf daring to move.
It was bewildering to also learn that there would be three similar motorcades and as any spook-book will outline, a plan that no one knew about till the very last nanosecond – which motorcade would swish El Presidente to wherever he was headed. The coppers overhead were also added soon enough and as and when the chief wanted to use that mode of travel, it would again be a roll-a-dice scheme which particular one would he board at the very last second. When the chief travelled overseas, which was almost all the time, there was no such thing as a commercial flight carrying the commoners that he too would grace with his presence, but pristine and pampered jets that were on call whenever and wherever they were needed. And even here, there were theories that at least two similar birds would be on duty so that most terrorists, the bad guys, would be left scratching their heads and tearing their beards.
Even then, they didn’t do half too badly – managing to attack the presidential convoy on an Islamabad-Rawalpindi high security journey. As it was, the Suzuki 600 ‘dabba’ carrying a payload beyond what the Japanese recommended encountered a raised shoulder on the road and stuttered and spluttered trying to overcome it. The ‘dabba’ that can often carry sixty or more villagers up the Nathiagali slopes failed to negotiate the rise on the road and missed the target by a few seconds. The result was more security in a regime that was increasingly obsessed by fears that their people were up to no good and could not be trusted. As policies of self-preservation continued to surface, the security measures became more and more stringent and even though thousands of personnel armed with every device other than coffee makers, let sniffer dogs loose at any venue that the president was going to grace in the next twenty four – maybe more, hours. No pot was left unexamined. No palms, no flowers, no shrubbery, the mikes, the tables, the mountings – anything and everything was examined in a manner that would have sent Holmes into ecstasy. And so it was, year after year.
What did all this cost us? No one has a clue but it is more than what a loaf of bread costs and that is no laughing matter as any loafer would testify. Certainly, this country spent an enormous amount of money protecting its VIPs from the chief down to the ministers and advisors whose names one did not know before and one cannot recall now. They too had their day in the sun, their egos buffed up no end, their pomposity touching new heights and their chests swollen with ill-gained pride. Even an ass seated inside a Merc hissing along at 100 mph is going to feel pretty good. When you are an important figure without which this country cannot make more mistakes, the feeling must be dizzying. In Punjab – and one can safely say elsewhere, the same hi-strung security was operational. When the Punjab CM moved, he moved. The road in front of his family’s sprawling estate crawling with 4x4s and big, broad shouldered menacing looking hulks with ‘No Fear’ blazoned across their rippling torsos, was a sight most Lahoris were used to and even amused by. These days although they are not the power brokers they were earlier, the same VIPs still are isolated from the grubby ‘awam’ by all kinds of barricades and traffic hurdles. The Lahore Cantonment is now replete with these devices, negotiating which requires a dexterity that most of us do not possess. There are other barriers, other posts and still other barriers. Dozens of men in starched uniforms strut about arrogantly and push you on. The rulers have to be separated from the people they rule – at all times.
Into all this comes Mr Zardari and one hears that he is planning to take a commercial flight to New York later this month. Is this wildly true? What is going on? Have the spooks been out run? A commercial flight? Are you serious? El Presidente on a flight carrying the plebs to the Big Apple? Must be a rumour, but if it is true, it should come like a breath of fresh air to us jaded and disillusioned lot who have been forced to become more and more cynical each day. There is more. Instead of the army – sorry pun indeed intended of free loaders and their tribe clambering on board and this includes just about everyone who hitches a free ride under the ‘media’ guise, this time there will not be any jokers. Those who seriously represent media can make the trip provided their network or their newspaper is prepared to foot the bill. This is indeed the way it should be and for years many of us have unsuccessfully written reams with absolutely no effect. Their must be free loaders in other countries too but why are we stuffed with them beyond our natural share?
We have so many other problems. Must we also have this lot who, other than a select few have nothing of significance to report from the other side of the world but a freebie is a freebie, so why not have a dip in the flowing Ganga or in case you are paranoid, Ravi (which of course no longer flows freely). Well if all of the above is true and we shall know soon enough, perhaps there is going to be a change. We’ll be happy with the crumbs for now.
The writer is a Lahore-based columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The News, 14/9/2008