Much has been written about Imran Khan’s decision not to live in the Prime Minister House or to have as little security or protocol as possible. To my mind no one can live a simpler life as prime minister and stay away from pomp as much as our last prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.
PM Abbasi never lived in the PM House, preferring to live in his own home in Islamabad. When he would sometimes go to friends’ home for dinner in the evening, there would be no large entourage of motor vehicles behind him. It would be just 3 vehicles and they would not stop traffic for him. But when he took a predetermined route, such as coming back from the airport to his home, they would block traffic and have a number of cars (7 or 8) in the entourage. Because it is more expensive to fly from the PM House (which has a helipad) to the airport, PM Abbasi preferred to go by road. But because blocking traffic inconvenienced other people therefore during rush hours he would take the helicopter. Mostly of course the decision to go to the airport or elsewhere in Islamabad either on a helicopter or by road was made by his security staff and not by the prime minister himself.
My wife and I had the occasion to travel with the prime minister to London where he gave the keynote speech at a Pakistan conference held by the London School of Economics. I too had to deliver lectures there and at Oxford. We traveled by PIA with the PM boarding even before other passengers. The PM had asked me to tell the Chief of Protocol not to arrange anyone to receive us. I, of course, did no such thing, and our high commissioner and a couple of other people from our mission came to receive us.
We stayed at the prime minister’s insistence at the Pelham Hotel which is, shall we say, not amongst the best hotels in London. After we reached the hotel the PM asked me to let the high commission’s cars, which were parked outside for our use, go back to the mission. (I didn’t even know that cars were waiting for us outside). I let the PM’s car go and asked the other driver to wait and drop my wife and me to a nearby restaurant where we were meeting friends. (We took a cab back). After a couple of meetings at the hotel, the Military Secretary to the PM asked me if he could also go to see his relations as there were no more official meetings scheduled for the PM. So he also left and PM was left alone at the hotel with just a couple of security people. Of course, when you stepped out of the hotel, there would be a few Pakistani media people waiting to talk to the PM.
Prime Minister Abbasi would always make fun of me for being tight with money and staying at inexpensive hotels, saying I was being a Memon. And I would in turn tell him I at least was a Memon but what was his excuse for being tight with money? But he was tight not just with his own money but also Pakistani people’s money by staying at inexpensive hotels and always staying away from any pomp and protocol.
Much was made of prime minister Abbasi going to the US and secretly meeting the American vice president without any knowledge of our own military. And then being strip-searched on his way back. Neither of these social media stories is true. PM Abbasi was going to the US to attend to his sister who lives in America and was undergoing a surgery. While there, he wanted to meet Vice President Mike Pence. He asked me to quietly arrange this meeting, which I did. Only two or three civilians and two or three others in Pakistan knew about this meeting before it took place. And he was accompanied to the meeting by only one person from the Pakistan Embassy. This notion that he met Vice President Pence without the knowledge of our military top officials is, of course, not true.
Normally when Pakistani officials return from America, our embassy protocol people either themselves escort the officials to the gate if they have the entry pass or notify TSA agents who escort the officials from the check-in counter to the gate. This is the standard courtesy they extend to us just as we do to them. But again prime minister Abbasi eschews such protocol and decided to go through regular security, where he took off his waist belt with a metal buckle just as all passengers do. To then start saying that he was strip-searched is not just a lie, but a motivated lie.
Former American president Jimmy Carter was famous for his simplicity. But his critics used to say that president Carter was ostentatious about his simplicity. The same can be said about many other Pakistani leaders. But not Abbasi. As prime minister he lived a simple life but never made a big fuss about it. It’s the same with his integrity. Here is a man with unquestionable integrity but who has never made a big deal about it. Perhaps that’s because it’s the minimum we owe our nation. People made all sort of crazy insinuations and accusations about him, especially about LNG deals. He always took full responsibility but never felt the need to protest his innocence. I think that was due to his innate self-confidence and knowing that truth will come out in due course.
When Abbasi was first elected prime minister he told me he understood other stuff but didn’t really understand Finance and wanted me to assist him with that. But that again turned out to be his typical modesty. When I worked with him, I found that he understood everything about the country’s finance and indeed, the entire amnesty and tax reduction scheme was prepared by just the two of us in his home over a long and hearty breakfast. (The man can put away parathas). I have described him to friends not as smart but as freakishly smart. Not just in meetings on energy, which was his forte, but in meetings on the economy I would sometimes be taken aback by his ability to see stuff no-one had anticipated. But unlike many other smart people, he isn’t arrogant about his intelligence and never let go of his humility. This then again speaks of his self-confidence and is probably why he could jump out of airplanes for the thrill of it.
I served under prime minister Abbasi as his special assistant, his adviser and finally as a minister. I have never worked for a more down-to-earth, humble, genuine and intelligent man as him. Pakistan would be lucky to have our future leaders as smart and humble as him.
The writer has served as federal minister for Finance, Revenue and Economic Affairs.