By Brig (Retd) Farooq Hameed Khan
The million dollars mystery about President Asif Zardari’s one million dollars (Rs.91 million) large hearted donation to Dargah Ajmer Sharif in India in April this year stands officially resolved. The documents unveiled on the occasion of 2012-13 federal budget presentation on June 01, 2012 confirm that President Zardari’s unprecedented donation to Dargah Ajmer was from state exchequer and that this transfer was regularized through the supplementary grant for Ministry of Foreign Affairs during current fiscal year.
According to Dargah administration this was the biggest donation in recent history. It surely was, coming from a country impoverished by its rich rulers who loved to carry the begging bowl.
Should the poor tax payer bear the burden of Mr. Zardari’s largesse to the Dargah of 13th century great Muslim sufi saint Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti ? Given that the President had gone to Ajmer Sharif in connection with fulfillment of personal ‘desire/prayer’, this generous ‘offering’ would have been spiritually more rewarding if made from one’s own pocket. One hopes that the hundreds of black goats reportedly sacrificed in Islamabad’s Presidency since 2008 to ward off evil eyes and protect President Zardari from black magic, are funded from his personal accounts and not from state funds.
The President’s pilgrimage to Ajmer Sharif was declared to be a private visit. Then why should the state fund all expenses including the official aircraft as well as few pious passengers like Interior Minister Rehman Malik? Why should Pakistan, with already 49 percent poverty levels, became poorer by a million dollars that are enough to build/equip many schools or health units for the under privileged? If the President had gifted the same amount to feed his poor and hungry countrymen it would have made a positive public impact.
President Zardari also donated 50,000 US dollars to Administrator of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s mausoleum during an official visit to Myanmar in Jan 2012. Former President General Musharraf, too, had donated 50,000 US dollars for construction of an additional building in this last Mughal Emperor’s tomb complex while on visit to Myanmar few years ago. This construction never came on ground due to reported Indian opposition.
Pakistanis have all respects for the late Bahadur Shah Zafar. But had these amounts been spend to renovate the tombs of Mughal Emperor Jahangir and Empress Nur Jahan in Shahdara, in Lahore’s outskirts, the people would have considered the money better spent.
These developments raise important questions. Can the top public office holder be allowed to utilize the allocated public/ discretionary funds at his/her own sweet will? Is there a requirement of Parliamentary Committee to oversee and give prior approval of such spending from tax payers’ money?
While on foreign tours, Pakistan’s top leaders are known for their penchant to stay in Presidential suites of luxurious and expensive hotels. I vividly recall, how during the three day official visit to White House in December 1998, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his 100 plus entourage were accommodated by our Washington Embassy( where I was then posted) in the elitist Willard hotel. Known as the Crown Jewel of Pennsylvania Avenue, located one block from the White House, the Willard Hotel has been the favorite choice of stay of Heads of State visiting Washington D.C.
The elaborate delegation comprised ministers, parliamentarians, journalists and personal staff. A fleet of around two dozen black limousine cars were specially hired for the visit. While the small core working group attended to official business, the remaining majority dubbed as ‘ pleasure’ group appeared to be in a festive mood and had a roaring time enjoying days long hospitality of their Pakistani- American friends including sight seeing trips and shopping sprees in Washington’s malls.
Our London High Commissioner correctly termed PM Gilani’s recent five day UK tour as the ‘mother of all visits’. The official summit review of Pak- UK strategic dialogue was reserved for few hours on May 10 only. The UK government accordingly bore expenses of only six officials out of 70 plus entourage.
Was it therefore justified in any way to take such a large delegation including many politicians, joy riders and 21 member media team seeking to spend a cool summer week in London at state expense? Will our UK High Commissioner please confirm reports that his tour cost the public exchequer around 600,000 pounds or even more?
Perhaps Pakistan’s rulers need to follow examples set by genuine leaders who become role models for their countrymen? In his first order of state business after assuming office, the French President Francois Hollande slashed his own salary and that of his Ministers by 30% to ‘set an example’ for a nation facing financial troubles.
Our leadership needs to take some lessons in self sacrifice and commitment to peoples welfare from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who auctioned his personal 1977 model Peugeot car for around 2.5 million USD in early 2011 to fund homes for disabled people and needy women.
Mr Ahmadinejad fulfilled a campaign promise to put a roof over the head of every Iranian and cultivated an image as a "people's president" and friend of the poor. In comparison, has our convicted and sentenced Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani honored his Aug 2010 offer to auction his wardrobe including expensive ten thousand dollars plus Italian designer suits for the flood victims. Mr. Gilani was recently in the center of another controversy for alleged purchase of few expensive coats worth lakhs of rupees during his recent London trip.
If we earnestly desire to become a self-respecting nation, we need to force our leadership at all levels to reform their attitudes and mindset towards adopting austerity and protecting national wealth /resources. Let us start from the top and slash the budgets of Presidency/ PM Houses by half declaring them ‘one dish zones’ and abolish the flawed system of discretionary grants/special funds of President/PM/Governors/CMs and certain Ministries.
Let the army of ministers and advisors be reduced to no more than 20 and ministers/parliamentarians should voluntarily reduce their perks/ privileges by 50 percent. Furthermore foreign joyrides under cover of official tours and Haj/umras at tax payers expense should be banned.
Leadership is all about inspiring the people through personal sacrifice, integrity, humility and competence. Let VVIPs prove that they really cared for the masses by sharing the agony of electric load shedding. I wish our parliamentarians had attended the budget session yesterday with the air conditioning switched off.
Let Pakistan’s leaders stop acting like Emperors going around showering generous contributions, making hefty donations and squandering public money on foreign trips.