The new French President, François Hollande, is a socialist and a practicing one. He has recently travelled to Brussels by train. He and his Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault are encouraging the ministers also to use railways, whenever possible. When they fly, they are encouraged to travel economy class on commercial airliners. The President’s official car is smaller than the one used by Sarkozy and he has reduced his official drivers from three to two. Both the drivers have been ordered to stop at the red lights. Housing Minister Cécile Duflot, who supports green environment, has ordered four official bicycles.
And neither President Hollande nor Prime Minister Ayrault has travelled to the Vatican to redeem themselves, at state expense. Our new Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf went to Saudi Arabia on an Umrah visit. Now having served in Saudi Arabia, I do appreciate the fact that Raja Sahib chose the Kingdom as his first port of call. Keeping the special relationship between the two countries in view, that was just the right thing to do. However, I am least comfortable with the fact that Raja Sahib travelled, with an entourage, in a special aircraft. And this looks even more ironic, as Pakistani credit rating has just been revised downwards by the Moody’s.
And who said President General Ziaul Haq’s lasting legacy only includes kalashnikovs, heroine and the Taliban? He was the first Pakistani Head of State to repeatedly go on those Umrah trips and his successors have continued that tradition, with the exception of President Ghulam Ishaq Khan. He came on an official visit in 1990 to Jeddah and was received at the airport by late King Fahad bin Abdul Aziz. Umrah visits’ protocol is far more modest. When suggested by someone that he should come more often for Umrahs, President Ishaq Khan replied that Umrah was not mandatory for Muslims and that he did not want to cause inconvenience to other pilgrims, just for his optional prayers.
Old habits die hard and the Pakistani leaders have developed a weakness for pomp and show. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced soon after the nuclear tests that he would vacate the expensive PM Secretariat, designed in the luxurious Moghal architectural tradition, at his own instance. He had second thoughts soon after. The economic hardship was made up by freezing the dollar accounts, but the PM continued to operate from that opulent sets of offices spread on a number of floors on the Constitution Avenue. But PM Gilani was smarter than Nawaz Sharif. In his very last days, the Prince from Multan declared that the Prime Minister House will be converted into an IT university. Peer Saeen, why did you take 50-long months to have this brilliant idea?
When I was Ambassador at Athens a decade ago, President Costas Stephanopoulos used to live a couple of streets away from my residence. He lived in an apartment building. There was a traffic signal on the main street, which the President and I had to take to go to the main city. On Sundays, this traffic light was turned to blinking yellow lights, as the traffic was light. One Sunday afternoon, as I was being driven to the city, I saw the Greek President driving his car himself, as he approached the traffic lights. A short stop, even at the blinking yellow lights, was mandatory. The President clearly had the right of way, as he was on the main street and I was approaching from a side lane. Our cars stopped at the signal and the President of the Hellenic Republic signalled to my driver to pass first. This was a gracious gesture and manners at their best. Can this ever happen in our Islamic Republic?
Prime Minister Mohammad Khan Junejo, a leader of impeccable integrity and great courage, decided in 1987 that generals and senior bureaucrats use Suzuki cars, as an austerity measure. Junejo was shown the door next year, and our civil and military officials were soon back in their larger cars. The Public Accounts Committee had recently asked the government to return 32 bulletproof luxury Benz cars, imported in 2005 at a cost of Rs600 million, tax free I believe. The government has regretted returning them, citing security reasons. Huge amounts are spent daily for the maintenance of these vehicles. Some months ago, Rs12 lakh were spent to change the tyres of the bulletproof vehicle used by Speaker Fehmida Mirza. Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain is the only VIP, who foots the maintenance bill of his bulletproof car. Three cheers for Chaudhry Sahib.
I think using bulletproof cars has become a status symbol in our Republic, which borrows or prints currency notes worth Rs2 billion daily to keep its cart moving! Now tell me please, as who would be interested in killing harmless souls like the Makhdoom of Hala or Hina Rabbani Khar? Now coming back to Raja Sahib, a team went to his native Gujjar Khan soon after he was sworn in last month, to select the site for a helipad. The expected late of attrition of the future Prime Ministers suggests that the Pak PWD would be quite busy making helipads, all over the country, in coming months.
Late Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme used to go to his office in Stockholm on bicycle. But then, he got killed while he was still in office. So, using bulletproof cars is not a bad idea at all! However, I am not too sure whether the incumbent Swedish Prime Minister uses a bulletproof car or not. And why does President Hollande not feel threatened while travelling to Brussels by train? Is it because France or Belgium have no lashkars?
Our leaders live amongst a vast sea of poverty and yet they behave like princes. The Prince of Multan set new standards for wardrobes. President Hollande will stop at the traffic lights, but in our country children will continue to be delivered in rickshaws during VIP movements! By the way, residents of DHA Lahore have heaved a sigh of relief ever since Gilani was shown the door.
The writer is a former ambassador.