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December 2, 2016

Of what use or joy these tainted billions?


December 2, 2016

Islamabad diary

Gen Raheel Sharif was the fly in their ointment, the ghost at their table, spoiling their feast, poisoning their third prime ministerial stint. His departure should have made them happy, leaving them overjoyed. He has gone while they are still in the saddle. This should have been a moment of triumph, of virtue and patience rewarded, of democracy vindicated.

But it hasn’t turned out this way and you can see it in their faces, grim and glum with foreboding. Tune into any channel of an evening and all the talk, or most of it, is not of Indian violations of the Line of Control, not of the siege of eastern Aleppo or Trump nominations in the incoming administration, but of the Sharif billions stashed away and of discomforting questions put about money trails and the dazzling financial achievements of the PM’s bright children.

When this is the state of play, when your honesty is openly questioned and fairy tales told by Qatari princes raise cackles of laughter, the mountains themselves echoing with the sounds of this nation-wide hilarity, what is the joy of being lord of the mandate for the third time? What is the use of all these billions diligently accumulated over the years to buy fancy property in London and elsewhere?

If you have great wealth, and no one will deny that our redeemers and saviours have more wealth than they can adequately explain, the fun of it is if you can live it up, live the high life, and have, metaphorically speaking, champagne and caviar for supper. Look at the US president-elect. He lives the high life unabashedly without apologies to anyone. Look at his gilded, literally gilded, living quarters atop Trump Tower in New York or his resort where he holidays in Miami. It may not be to everyone’s taste but that’s the way he likes it.

And he doesn’t have Bill Clinton’s lifelong bed and breakfast problem. Whether as governor of Arkansas or president of the United States he was always on the prowl, to the distress of his long-suffering wife who yet defended him and belittled the unlikely ladies who were his victims. Trump is thrice-married and the new first lady, as the world knows, is very attractive.

But look at our industrial and political champions – great in industry, setting up one factory after the other when they had a shot at power, and great in politics, no one else in Pakistan’s history, politicians far brighter than them with more going for them, bestowed with the same luck – having to answer troubling questions about money trails and the like, and being reduced to the extremity of calling for help from Qatari princes whose letter in support of our ruling family turns out to be the biggest joke of 2016. If there was a prize for humour it would get it, hands down.

Leave the boys to one side, Hasan and Hussain, who may be high-flying financiers but don’t look the part. If they were ever to walk into a Monaco casino they would look odd, raising eyebrows. But the daughter, she’s charming and well-groomed. The question is: does she enjoy seeing her name in print everyday in connection with the biggest financial scandal in Pakistan’s history, Panamagate? Yes, no kidding, it is the biggest.

Our history has never been short of drama and colourful action: prime ministers shot, prime ministers deposed, army chiefs arriving in triumph and departing in disgrace, Pakistan entering western-backed military alliances it should have avoided like the plague, the Fortress of Islam acting as a conduit and facilitator for adventures in Afghanistan. The list is long and makes for a gripping tale. But there’s been nothing like Panamagate.

Which Pakistani prime minister or ruling family has such a shining CV as our present lot? It is a meritorious list of honour: unexplained steel mills in Dubai and Jeddah, real-estate business in Qatar that no one up till now had ever heard of, a whole line of luxury flats in Mayfair, offshore accounts and onshore accounts. And this is to say nothing of their string of factories and businesses in Pakistan.

In 1999 soon after the Musharraf coup the elder boy is seen and heard telling Tim Sebastian of the BBC that he is a student and the Mayfair flat he lives in is a rented property, the rent for it coming regularly from Pakistan. Quite apart from the fact that at that time no other student perhaps in the whole of London, or the UK for that matter, would be living in such Spartan quarters, the more fascinating thing is that within two years – and there are documents presented in the Supreme Court to prove this – the same scholar is dabbling in businesses worth millions of pounds. We should borrow his services to bring a little of the same prosperity to Pakistan.

And Shahbaz Sharif who has been ruling Punjab forever says that if it weren’t for Imran Khan’s agitation, his sit-ins and marches, Pakistan would be like Turkey and China. There may be truth in this analysis but what about slightly more honest and truthful leaders? Wouldn’t that be more helpful in setting Pakistan on the right path? Unless of course he thinks that honesty and truthfulness are distractions, irrelevant to the pursuit of nation-building and development.   

A patriotic objection can also be put to the names we are hearing in this scandal – Nielsen, Nescoll, Minerva, all very Western names. Given our rulers great affinity for the Holy Land, their passionate commitment to prayer and religious observances, their never-failing practice of spending the last ten days of Ramadan in the Holy Mosques, shouldn’t the names have had an Arabic sound to them, redolent of those holy sands, something like Al Waleed or Al Anbar, or something like that? Minerva, for one, is from Greek mythology. This makes it very foreign, which is strange for a family which has always prided itself on its native affinities.

But back to my first question, what is the use of all these billions if despite holding high office, indeed the highest offices in the land, you are being made to look like dodgers and deniers and are being put questions to which you have no ready or straight answers? If all the differing answers arising from Panamagate proffered by this bright family were put together it would make a best-seller, with the title – you’ve guessed it – the Book of Contradictions.

It is already funny to see how every TV channel juxtaposes the answers, highlighting the contradictions – with everyone offering a different explanation, the piece de resistance of course being the literary contribution from his highness the prince of Qatar who, I suspect, if he has any inkling of how his name has come to be treated as a symbol of laughter in the Pakistani media, would be cursing his luck that he was ever talked into this mistimed rescue of Pakistan’s beleaguered first family.

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