Sunday March 03, 2024

Negotiating power

February 02, 2020

Syed Irtiqa Zaidi’s life started a year before Pakistan. He was born in Nehtaur village in Bijnor district in Uttar Pradesh, India, where his father was a middle-class landlord. A year after the creation of Pakistan his family migrated and settled in Quetta.

Zaidi’s story almost mimics the journey of Pakistan -- full of enthusiasm but riddled with massive challenges, and often punctuated by opportunistic greed of the overlords. Their self-aggrandizing traits, he believes, waylaid the promise of the nation that continues to negotiate with the gremlins of its past that it must overcome to discover a secure future. For over 40 years, Irtiqa Zaidi served the government in various capacities. He retired as joint secretary from the Ministry of Commerce, where, in his last few years, he worked closely with senior government officials and had several opportunities to observe up close various ministers and heads of governments to be able to afford us some valuable observations.

'Negotiating the Power Corridors |Forty Challenging Years of Civil Service' is a lifetime account of Zaidi’s travels and travails that traverse his personal and professional life. Written in a linear narrative, the book cobbles together an assortment of anecdotes -- silly and serious -- from work to pastime that is entertaining as well as endearing. The author glides from one challenge to another with an unruffled spirit and emerges as a strong character for holding fast to his ideals and sticking to unvarnished views in his interactions with his seniors as well as the reader. He is shy of manufacturing ambivalent verbiage to hide his ideas or opinions.

In the process, he creates resentments and even hostilities that earn him reprimands but miraculously he escapes severe reprisals. He was in class eight when the first martial law was enacted. On the fateful day, he was baffled that “teachers were talking in subdued tones; some even whispering” at school. When General Musharraf took over, Zaidi was at the Planning Commission. He does not seem to mind the military takeovers and is quite in thrall to Ayub Khan’s ‘building Pakistan’ mantra or high growth and development indicators of the Musharraf era.

He displays a certain nostalgia for Ayub Khan’s style of governance, and narrates quite a few anecdotes from the era. In comparison, he shows his displeasure about generals Yahya and Ziaul Haq. He terms Yahya Khan as a villain of Pakistan who was laden with many a moral weakness while Zia was an iron man but scared of the PPP. He is livid at Zulfikar Ali Bhutto for causing structural regression in the civil service through his so-called reforms that left the civil servants at the mercy of politicians forcing the worst to come to the fore through sycophancy and by “implementing illegal orders” including falsifying election results. He also accuses him of “blatant rigging” in the 1975 elections that triggered public protest, paving the way for martial law.

During one of his official tours to Larkana, Zaidi met with a PPP founder and Bhutto’s one-time close friend, Syed Mohammad Ahmad, who had suddenly ‘retired’ from politics. Ahmad, who ran a printing press, narrated how he fell out with Bhutto for opposing tickets to landlords and the wealthy elite in the forthcoming elections. In protest, he resigned. Soon after, Bhutto got his commercial premises raided and sealed by the police who registered an FIR accusing him of printing pornographic materials. It was only after Ahmad sought Bhutto’s pardon and promised never to join politics that his printing press was returned to him. However, Bhutto served him a chilling warning: “If you ever opened your mouth against me, you will lose much more than the printing press”.

During her first term as prime minister, Zaidi notes how Benazir violated norms by appointing her loyalists to various posts regardless of their merit or capacity. During her second tenure, Benazir turned down Zaidi’s summary to dissolve the National Highway Authority (NHA) and allow the Planning Commission to take over the motorway projects. As the leader of the opposition, she had criticised Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and promised to disband NHA and give the authority to the Commission. He loathes Sharif for his lack of attention or conviction in the matters of the state affairs but praises the professionalism and dedication of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Ahsan Iqbal. He credits Iqbal for effectively revamping the Planning Commission within weeks after he took over as deputy chair while he finds Abbasi a “humble, sober, knowledgeable and a very competent person”.

Zaidi’s career highlight is perhaps his role in the Afghan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement where his team offers resistance against the then president Asif Zardari’s efforts to override strategic concerns. He describes Zardari “bereft of any sense” and narrates an eye-witness account of his speech during the American Independence Day at the US embassy in Islamabad that he calls “thoroughly embarrassing”.

As a student at the agricultural college, the author avoids mandatory training on ploughing with the oxen but manages to pull through a forgery. He indulges in nocturnal sessions of playing hockey, takes late-night ticketless train journeys to cinemas and negotiates fretful strolls back to the hostel through deserted roads while fearing for ghosts. On a foreign scholarship tour, he wrote a play on the archaic wisdom of bureaucracy and even performed in it to wide applause. His sole India visit to New Delhi for official business surprises him for it goes well. Because a few years earlier while transiting through an Indian airport he faced gruelling harassment by security personnel tho felt he was perhaps acting as a courier to deliver some message to someone. This was despite several official-level assurances from the Indian Ambassador at Islamabad.

The book is jointly published by IPS Press, Islamabad and Fazlee’s Book Super Market, Karachi. It makes for an interesting read and offers valuable insights to aspiring civil servants, serving bureaucrats, journalists as well as people interested in deciphering the system of governance in general.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli