Zardari urf Jootay Ka Yaar

The gods have a choice in the matter of destruction. Whom they would destroy they first make mad or ridiculous. Pakistani ‘strongmen’ usually end up as mad, their actions when twilight approaches explainable only on the plane of madness. The more hilarious alternative is reserved for special beings.

Most of us were aware of the rumours that President Zardari had some sort of a chateau in France. But details were hard to come by. Now, thanks to the president’s magnificently-timed trip to Paris and London, the veil has been rent asunder. President and family, the Lord be praised, are proud owners of the Manoir de la Reine Blanche — Manor of the White Queen — a 16th century chateau, as we’ve been informed, built for the widow of Philippe Fourth.

For most people in Pakistan this would be their first lesson in French and the first they would have heard of Philippe Fourth. Fauzia Wahab, the PPP’s tempestuous spokesperson, can always be counted on to put up a defence of anything, no matter how outlandish. I am dying to hear her say that the Manoir de la Reine Blanche is a figment of the opposition’s imagination.

Any fool could have told the president not to visit his chateau because it was bound to draw fire. But he just couldn’t resist it. So he took a helicopter ride to it, courtesy his French hosts, and we are all in on the secret. Good for us but not very smart of the president.

In other circumstances a French chateau would be something to boast about, something even to be proud of. But associated with the president of a country whose international distinguishing mark is its permanent begging bowl — Pakistan always with its hands stretched out — the chateau is a reminder like nothing else of the president’s enterprising spirit, the same huge talent which long ago earned him the imperishable title of Mr Ten Percent.

Just when the president was thought by many in Pakistan to have secured his position, and to have matured a bit, he goes and blows it all by inviting attention to his shining reputation and his equally-shining past. The one thing the president should shun is history and here he has invited the world to a study of history.

Pakistan’s leading property tycoon — you’ve guessed his name — once told me that the president had a sharp eye for property. He could have saved his breath. Regarding the president’s prowess in this field there were never any doubts, Zardari and property being an unbreakable combination. Now with the helicopter ride to the Manor of the White Queen we are reminded of the nexus once again. This has to be public relations at its glowing best.

If he was the Minister of Housing, or the Minister of Property Investment, perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much. Indeed, he was Minister of Investment in his wife’s second term as prime minister, a circumstance not without its share of high comedy. Zardari and investment, Zardari and property — this was the subject of never-ending jokes. But he is the president of Pakistan and even if he doesn’t mind making himself the laughingstock of Europe, Pakistan — unhappy country, great as our sins may be, what have we done to deserve this? — too gets tarred in the process.

Pakistan and terrorism, Pakistan the land of graft and corruption, and now this: a president with a taste for stately homes in different climes. It is not hard to imagine the wry looks on the faces of our foreign friends when next time we turn to them — nay, implore them — for money.

As floodwaters overwhelm different parts of the country, it is not unreasonable to expect the world to come to our assistance. After all, this is the worst flood disaster to hit Pakistan in living memory. But when we ask friends for assistance somewhere at the back of their minds will lurk the brooding image of the president’s French chateau.

True, we never expected much from President Zardari. Just as some leaders are victims of high expectations — we expect too much from them — President Zardari was always a victim of low expectations. We expected nothing from him. We just marvelled at his good fortune and we asked ourselves what we had done to deserve him. Even so, the least he owed Pakistan was to keep his head below the ramparts. The timing of his present visit apart, the revelation about his French chateau is less an embarrassment for him as it is a discomforting thought for Pakistan that it is blessed with such leadership. To suffer injuries is one thing. We are used to this. But to have salt poured over open wounds is an unnecessary exercise.

Yes, Zardari is a democratically elected president. But this is no excuse for behaviour that wouldn’t be condoned anywhere. Indeed, a democratically elected leader is under a greater obligation than a usurper not to insult his office and his people.

But this fulmination is to forget where all this comes from, the antecedents of the fortune we are talking about. God knows we’ve had plenty of buccaneers in our history, men who have used their position to rob, nay pillage, the state and enrich themselves. But the phenomenon before us is unprecedented in our history. It has no equals, no rivals.

There have been no domains this buccaneering has not ventured into, no limits to the extent of its grasping ambition. A billion dollars is easy to say. But a fortune of this size is not easy to amass. Even with the resources of the state at one’s disposal, it requires a special kind of skill to think in these big terms and then to go about implementing that vision. We’ve always said our leaders lack vision. We should be looking afresh at this proposition.

Robber barons was a term used to describe Pakistan’s first generation of depredators. But it is a term wholly inadequate to take in the scale of what we have before us. The Swiss bank accounts (60 million dollars) which figured in the NRO case are really small change in this calculation. The Cotecna commission — on a contract for pre-shipment inspection of goods given to the Swiss firm of this name — was really the first, hesitant step in a journey that was to become progressively more subtle and sophisticated. The Cotecna affair left an embarrassing trail. No such mistake was to be made subsequently.

Surrey Palace was bought for 4.5 million pounds. How much did the chateau cost? How much the apartment in Manhattan? How much the whispered property in Spain? We are talking of big money here. Where did it all come from? We are also talking of a creative vision not seen in Pakistan before. But there is nothing new in any of this, it’s an old and oft-repeated story. But something must have been at work, something hidden in the dark reaches of the soul, to impel a helicopter ride that defies common sense and has set the rumour and conspiracy mills to roll again.

If culture is destiny, then some form of culture is at work here. An educated mind, a cultivated sensibility, would have shied away from such exhibitionism. This does not mean that educated minds are immune from corrupt habits. But at least educated minds, even if guilty of the worst, try not to put the products of their prowess on public display. It is the parvenu or the upstart, still insecure about his wealth and position, usually guilty of such a lapse of taste. For it is tastelessness above all which explains, and does justice to, that helicopter ride to the White Queen’s palace.

Don’t we have enough on our plate? We are being hit by terrorism and we have been hit by the worst floods for the last 100 years. And Karachi is in flames. President Zardari would have done nothing had he remained at home. He hasn’t once visited the frontlines where our soldiers have fought and died. It is too much to expect he would have done anything to ease the plight of the flood-hit. But at least he could have spared the nation’s feelings.

The good thing is that he has also made himself more ridiculous in the process, the only silver lining in a very dark mass of clouds.

Friday, August 06, 2010

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