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Islamabad’s long shadows

In the midst of more compelling political developments such as the MQM’s travails and the plight of the PPP, not much attention is paid to headlines that may have a larger significance in a social context. It is a measure of our addiction to politics that even the great tragedy that was triggered in Karachi by a deadly combination of a heatwave, Ramazan and power outages was almost reduced to a political squabble.

But I feel inclined to share some thoughts prompted by a Supreme Court verdict that relates to an acute disparity between the lifestyles of ordinary citizens and the extravagant living of high public functionaries at public expense. The point here is that the money that could be better spent on the welfare of the poor and the deprived is wastefully consumed by our rulers in maintaining a lifestyle that defies the reality of our circumstances.

Now, I do understand why the verdict I am talking about would not be a major story. The report that I read a few days ago is based on a detailed judgement of the Supreme Court. A short order had been issued by the three-judge bench on March 31. It was the dismissal of a plea that sought a declaration from the Supreme Court that the provision of luxury vehicles, spacious accommodation and other privileges provided to top functionaries at public expense was not only un-Islamic but also a violation of the fundamental rights of the citizens of Pakistan.

According to the published report on the detailed (six-page) judgement, the Supreme Court has held that the massive expenses incurred on the palatial President House, Prime Minister’s House or the various governors’ houses, as well as the extravagant lifestyles of their occupants and the perks enjoyed by government functionaries at public expense were a matter of government policy involving political questions.

However, the Supreme Court said in its judgement that there is no escaping the fact that public property is a public trust in the hands of public functionaries. But the counsel, the judgement added, had cast his net much too wide since the question of emoluments, accommodation and other perks provided to public functionaries was essentially a matter of government policy, involving political questions. And this was a domain in which the court ordinarily does not intervene.

My purpose here is not to dwell on this case or on the views expressed by the Supreme Court. But I deem this to be an appropriate peg to look out of this window in various other directions. This, I concede, is the scene that is repeatedly scanned in this space. What is important is to take into account the changes that are dictated by new developments and reflect on lessons that we have learnt in the conduct of our national policies.

Obviously, the ruling elite is not at all concerned about human values that are enshrined in the concept of democracy and social justice. Social inequality is the hallmark of our political process. A show of pomp and authority is considered mandatory. We have the relevant facts and figures that show in some detail the specific allocations made for the upkeep of our high officials such as the president and the prime minister. These expenditures are manifestly preposterous within the framework of our financial state of affairs and in proportion to the unmet needs of the social sector.

What can someone who feels outraged by this evidence of ignominy do about it? We now know that going to the court will not help. Ideally, political norms that are rooted in a sense of justice and personal integrity and accountability should not allow such extravagance. In an efficient democracy, the public opinion would in itself obstruct such glaring incongruities. But while our leaders do cry out for free and fair elections, their commitment to fairness and uprightness in running an administration is hardly noticeable in practice. The tendency is to resort to business as usual.

In my view, Islamabad – as it was conceived and later delivered – is a concrete symbol of the kind of majesty of our rulers that is in conflict with our national exigencies. Some grandeur may be necessary to justify a people’s pride in their capital. That is how national monuments serve a purpose and inspire patriotic sentiments.

Islamabad, though, has cast shadows of a different kind. This is not the occasion to go into our capital’s history. Yet, it should be useful to remember that it was born during the last years of the united Pakistan and we can imagine how it may have reinforced the sense of alienation of the people of the then East Pakistan. After all, the seat of government was shifted to Islamabad from Karachi in the sixties, with the main buildings, extraordinary in their designs, still under construction.

We may focus, exclusively, on the prime minister’s house in terms of its physical expanse and glory. There may be some justification for parliament and the president house being imposing and grand for ceremonial reasons. But we have a prime minister’s house that is big enough for playing cricket or polo within its boundaries – depending on the inclination of its occupant or the spouse of its occupant.

Indeed, there had been some reports that during Benazir Bhutto’s second term (1993-96), her husband had spent millions of dollars and levelled trees in a large area to install a polo field. Even if this was an exaggeration, an opportunity to explore its opulence and its vastness can be very instructive. The less could have been more in a particular context.

I have an anecdote about our prime minister’s house. When Mairaj Khalid, truly a humble politician, was made interim prime minister after the removal of Benazir in November 1996, he was provided a tour of the facility. He was shocked by its splendour and its spread. It was nearly a traumatic experience for him and he shared his feelings with his friends and with a number of journalists.

Another story that I cannot confirm is that when the prime minister’s house was a design on paper, a recalcitrant bureaucrat wrote some comments on the file to invoke the lifestyles of the prime ministers of the oldest (Britain) and the largest (India) democracies of the world. We know what became of his or any similar objections.

I wonder if there is any consolation in the fact that we have one of the most imposing houses of a head of government in the whole world. The problem is that we also have other ratings in the domains of education and health and justice and governance.

The writer is a staff member.

Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

Ghazi Salahuddin, "Islamabad’s long shadows," The News. 2015-07-05.
Keywords: Democracy in Pakistan , recalcitrant bureaucrat , Prime Minister , Political parties , Benazir Bhutto , Mairaj Khalid , MQM , PPPP , MLN