The morning after taking oath I took over my office and was confronted with hard choices. There were so many candidates in the running for the posts of my personal secretary, personal assistant and driver. I was supposed to have one each. I looked at every candidate. They all looked at me longingly, trying to evoke a sympathetic response from me.
I usually get easily carried away at such moments, but I knew that the ministers’ drivers, secretaries and assistants are a very important part of officialdom. These grapevines have long branches and communication through them travels very quickly. They keep themselves well-informed. The drivers listen keenly to what you say on your cell phone or when you are talking to whoever is with you in the car.
Personal secretaries and assistants happen to be around when something important is discussed or decided. They take dictations and issue orders. The information so gleaned is traded and used in a deadly fashion to their advantage. The smart among them become virtual shadow ministers; one or two wrong steps and the minister is indebted to them and in their control.
The officers under the minister try to stay on the right side of these 2-3 people so that they do not drop an unfavourable word in the minister’s ears when he is in a more receptive mood. For these reasons I decided to appoint personal staff that had not served with any minister before. What I gave up in the bargain was quick useful information and some other jobs they could do.
For the next two weeks I had to entertain an unending stream of visitors – from my village, from the surrounding villages, from other parts of the province, those that I knew and those that I did not. Everyone said I was the best person for the job and that the previous government had been disappointing. They wished me to continue for at least another three years. From the wise ones there was advice, and requests to set the Qibla right for those who would come after us.
I am sure they knew that the qibla changes with every new government in no time. This is the easiest thing to turn around and does not require divine revelation. After all the praise had been given and received, inevitably most of them would gently take out one or more applications from their pockets requesting jobs for one or more sons.
At this my cynicism would turn to pity. They were obviously in a tight spot and had no other way to get out of it except to supplicate before those in power. I am sure it was as demeaning to them as it was unpalatable to me.
I had always looked at official government figures on unemployment with disbelief. With this short experience in a ministerial office, my disbelief was further strengthened. The Bureau of Statistics bases its findings on surveys – a very unreliable method.
As in a placebo experiment the top statisticians concerned with this important aspect of the economy should be made ministers at the federal level and in the provinces for a month or so. The problems would then hit them. They will be inundated by requests for all kinds of jobs.
Our citizens are dying in shipwrecks to escape unemployment and poverty yet we bandy the unemployment figure at about six percent. The successive governments have made sure that the poor get poorer yet they have the chutzpah to speak in the name of the wretched during election time. The classical definition of chutzpah fits here perfectly: when a person murders his parents and then pleads for mercy being an orphan.
Two or three days after assuming office, my PS presented me with a piece of paper enlisting salaries, allowances and privileges of the ministers. These have been determined by an act of the provincial government of 1975. The last amendment in this law was carried out in the late 1990s.
After glancing through it, I closed my eyes in disbelief. It read: salary Rs18,000 per mensem, sumptuary allowance Rs6,000 per mensem, 1800cc car with 600 litres petrol per month, utilities free, free official residence or if one was not available then Rs40,000 rent per month.
It also included a discretionary grant Rs25,000 per month paid quarterly on release by the finance department (if funds are short it may not be released), medical cover according to medical cover rules, daily travel allowance Rs450 per day and telephone at residence with maximum 13879 calls per month (no overseas calls).
To be concluded
The writer is an ex-minister and a former federal secretary. Email: email@example.com
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Government-Pakistan , Unemployment , Economy , Poverty , Election , Jobs , Pakistan , PS