It is no doubt important to be important. Nowhere in the world, however, is it more important to be ‘important’ than in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. While everything else is in terminal decline, the VIP culture is alive and well and thriving as never before.
To the long list of those who were born VIPs must be added the new breed of VIPs, and those who think they are or ought to be VIPs. The born-VIPs naturally do not wish to be seen with the late comers so they now call themselves Very, Very Important Persons (VVIPs). Unfortunately, the ladder climbers are not far behind. So there is, in Pakistan, now the super VIP class which calls itself Very, Very, Very Important Persons. Of late, they have been elevated to TIP. This stands for a Terribly Important Person! Terrible is the operative word.
Lest someone thinks this is all said in jest, consider this. During his three-day trip to Washington in early December, prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s entourage consisted of about 120 people. Naturally, these were all VIPs. Most were also accompanied by their wives.
The three-day official stay in Washington DC plus a couple of days in New York with a quick dash to Buffalo to see the Niagara Falls cost a neat bundle. It was all paid for from the fast disappearing foreign exchange reserves of Pakistan which at last count were hovering around US$450 million and shrinking - barely enough to cover two weeks’ imports. But worse was yet to come.
Gone with the begging bowl but coming back empty-handed from Washington - Uncle Sam wanted more ‘progress’ (read more acquiescence) from Pakistan on the nuclear issue, fighting terrorism and drugs etc - Nawaz Sharif felt some belt-tightening was necessary. How an army of 120 freeloaders was going to help in securing aid was not clear unless it was assumed that the Americans would be impressed by a baraat-type crowd.
Even more significant is self-respect, a concept with which many of the VIPs are completely unfamiliar. In seeking others’ respect, one must first have self-respect. The crowd that descended on Washington seems to have missed this point. The Americans were not impressed by the large crowd whose country is on the verge of bankruptcy but whose leaders flaunt the wealth as if they were the shaikhs of oil-rich kingdoms or the rulers of Brunei.
On the way back home, the entourage stopped over in London as well. For colonial subjects, London still holds great nostalgic attraction even if it has lost its glory of the raj days.
But as anyone even remotely familiar with London would confirm, it is extremely expensive. The prime minister had asked the high commission to save some money by booking his entourage into a four-star hotel instead of a five star hotel. Even the four star hotels in London cost a fortune but that is a different story.
The VVIPs from Pakistan felt insulted. How could they be put in a four-star hotel? Never mind if the country is broke. What is more important: the massaging of these VIPs’ inflated egos or saving the country from bankruptcy? They were booked in the Marble Arch Cumberland Hotel, a very decent place, costing ú90 per night (approximately Rs 8200) but the Pakistani VVIPs would have none of it.
Foreign minister Sartaj Aziz, having taken care of the country’s finances in his earlier assignment, was the first to complain. He said the rooms were ‘too small.’ For what? Chaudhry Nisar Ali and Abida Husain were equally upset. The sonha munda of Nawaz’s gang in fact kicked up the biggest fuss. Begum Abida Husain said the bed size was too small. The wholesome, even if somewhat aging minister had a point. She was accompanied by her husband. Now that is cruel; to put them in a small room with such a small bed! London by night would be no fun.
Ideally, the honourable ministers wanted to be accommodated at Buckingham Palace but the high commission had failed to make prior arrangements. A few heads would roll there. The Queen would not have minded a bit. In fact, she would have been flattered to be graced by the company of so many Very Very Important Persons from Pakistan, smelling of curry all over!
Instead, the honourable ministers from the Bankrupt Republic of Pakistan were shifted to the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane. Only finance minister Ishaq Dar refused to relocate, fully aware of the true state of the country’s finances. Those who insisted on moving to the Hilton included Sartaj Aziz, Chaudhry Nisar Ali, Ghous Ali Shah, Begum Abida Husain, her husband Fakhr Imam (he is no minister, this gentleman) and foreign secretary Shamshad Ahmed. Haji Baz Gul Afridi, an MNA, was also moved to the Hilton. It cost ú250 per night per room.
Since the ministers had stayed for two hours at Cumberland, Pakistan ended up paying for its rooms as well without using them. Another member of the entourage, Ijaz ul Haq stayed at his own flat in London. Come to think of it, Mian Sahib also has a flat. He could have accommodated these gentlemen and gentlewomen there.
In fact, Benazir, too, has a huge mansion in Surrey. It is completely empty except for some horses owned by her husband, Asif Zardari. He is currently cooling his heels in a Karachi jail, facing charges of grand larceny and murder. The horses would not have minded allowing the VVVIPs of Pakistan to stay there for the night, all as part of their patriotic duty.
Besides, the honourable ministers would have established a fundamental principle that the Surrey mansion was purchased with money stolen from Pakistan and was, therefore, government property. The qabza group missed a great opportunity to secure qabza.
What a pity!
Muslimedia: January 1-15, 1999