Anecdotes from the corridors of power always seem to go down well with an audience – and I have more where those came from. A little something from my days as the junior-most minister in former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani’s cabinet. What is it like, seeing the wheels of government turn, when one is on the inside?
I can let you in on the average Cabinet meeting – these affairs are usually something of a formality that gives senior ministers the chance to spout some jargon, the Prime Minister to make a couple of marginally amusing jokes, and the rest to admire and adulate while the serious business is left to the bureaucracy.
Cabinet meetings: some jargon, a joke or two, admiration and adulation… and the serious business is left to the bureaucracy
It was at one of these meetings that Khurshid Shah, then the Cabinet’s senior-most minister, brought up an Issue of National Importance. It appeared, he said, that a gentleman in interior Sindh had invented a car kit that would enable automobiles to run on water. There was a moment of reflection, but his tone and demeanour was so serious that even Rehman Malik shed his customary reverie and congratulated the cabinet on this splendid discovery. Senior ministers crowded round, thrilled, debating loudly how best the Prime Minister might convey this Issue of National Importance to the people of Pakistan. Prime Minister Gillani was, however, a little more circumspect. He is an aficionado of motorcars and privately felt that his own collection would be undermined by this bizarre discovery.
Taking my cue from the Prime Minister’s reluctance to celebrate the grand discovery, I piped up hesitantly: “Sir, but think of companies like Ferrari, Honda, Toyota, BMW… their R&D budgets are probably larger than the country’s entire national budget. If anything like this were even possible, they would have devoted all their research to it. Anyone claiming to have invented a ‘car kit’ that allows a car to run on water is a charlatan!” I had spoken in a low enough voice, but not too low to go unnoticed, and my protestations immediately produced some grim looks. Clearly, the Prime Minister was not convinced, and after I had spoken up, instructed the minister that this needed to be verified by the chaps at the Ministry of Science and Technology. The rest, as you will remember, is (slightly embarrassing) history.
Is this enough to show that the working and decision-making standards of the Cabinet need a bit of overhauling? Wait. There’s more. There was the time that Nadeem Ul Haque, then the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, decided to sack Dr Samar Mubarakmand, a scientist who claimed to be one of the ‘founders’ of the Pakistan Atomic Bomb. He was lobbying for a project on the Thar coal reserves and claimed he could produce gas from coal. After billions of rupees were sunk into the project, however, nada, not even a smoke spiral. Haque, who is a gentleman through and through, had no desire to become embroiled in any such controversy. When rumours began to circulate that the deputy chairman had decided to sack the great scientist, Haque arrived at his office the next day to find it bristling with SSG commandoes. He was told that Dr Mubarakmand was sitting in his office for the purpose of paying a ‘courtesy call’. The meeting lasted a few minutes and that was the last one heard of the great scientist being removed from his position.
Most people believe that the Prime Minister House and ministers’ residences are so extravagantly managed that they account for a large bite of the budget. On entering the PM House or Governor House, say, your first challenge will be to navigate your way through the army of waiters and lower staff wanting tips. The institution of the ‘bearer’ goes back, of course, to colonial times. In 1993, when my uncle Chaudhry Altaf Hussain assumed the office of the Governor of Punjab, there were still a few bearers from the old days; the oldest of them, the venerable Haji sahib as he was called, was rehired after retirement. He was the caretaker of the rooms reserved for the President and PM at the Governor House in Lahore. I have yet to meet a man as well versed in dining etiquette as he. You will find the knives and spoons on the right side of the plate setting, he would instruct, and the forks on the left. The correct order of use is from the outside in. This way, the outlying cutlery is gradually stripped away as the meal progresses, leaving behind the cutlery for the next course.
The Governor House is built around the tomb of Qasim Shah, a Mughal subedar of Lahore. The British built a beautiful dining hall just over the grave itself and the Darbar Hall is now an extension of the tomb. But the tradition of old-style bearers is almost finished. Prime Ministers and powerful aides from the civil and military bureaucracy often induct people from their own areas as bearers and domestic staff in such establishments. Yet, many of the old rooms are a shambles and in sore need of repair. Most caretakers are usually more concerned with the rooms used by the top man, while the rest are left neglected. What should be done, you ask? I would suggest opening up some of these lovely old houses to the public to create an interest in heritage buildings. Not only would it help raise funds to maintain the buildings, but also improve the image of their residents.
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