Ahsen Iqbal was polite in his tone but furious with his words. He was calling from Narowal, and protesting to me about the segment I did with Ejaz Haroon, Ex-MD PIA about the use of PIA Boeing-777 for PM Nawaz’s home coming from London, apparently with his staff and equipment and luggage of a Camp Office as revealed by PIA spokesman Danyal Gillani.
Ahsen Iqbal is one of the most logical and articulate member of PM’s cabinet. Someone I keep on looking for my program for bringing forward PMLN govt.’s point of view, like we did in case of China Pakistan Economic Corridor – and someone who is rarely available to us; for I don’t belong to the club of ‘privileged trusted good anchors’. But do I want to belong to that ‘prevailed club’ is another kind of question.
Few months ago, I was flying to Karachi and came across an important politician, who is a trusted insider of the ruling system; someone who has access to PM Nawaz Sharif’s mind, habits and idiosyncrasies; someone who has known him, his family, and his close coterie for decades and someone who is not fond of making revelations in public, an “Off-the-Record” respected insider of Islamabad and Pakistan. He is also a great supporter of Nawaz Sharif, but for his own politics of survival and empowerment, not because of any ‘ideological affiliation’ and ideology in Pakistan is dead anyway. Though the man I am referring to is a sober ‘man of ideas’.
I reminded him of the repeated statements from Sharif family that all expenses of PM’s treatment and stay aboard will be borne by the family. How come for treatment PM Nawaz becomes a private citizen and for travel back he becomes the official PM?
We changed our seats to sit close. In between our discussions on regional issues, in which my interlocutor named several key political persons being paid or influenced by the Indians, I asked my ‘Off-the-Record’ friend: but what is Mian Sahib trying to do with Modi? does he realize that Indians are taking him for a ride? they are purposefully driving a wedge between him and Pakistan’s military establishment? they are following a script and that is so patently visible….My interlocutor laughed and replied: “Mian Sb, does not think hard on such issues; for him Indians are a convenient useful leverage to weaken generals, to balance out their power, their influence..and he knows that Americans back him on this..” …but what will be the long term implications of this gamble for Pakistan? I retorted.
My interlocutor paused, took a deep breath, remained silent for several moments and said:”I have known Mian Sb and all his people around him for a long time; unfortunately they are not into reading and reflection; I do not think Mian Sahib and most around him have even read the history of this region, forget about past 500 years, he does not understand the past 100 years…he then added: apart from Ahsen Iqbal and Khurram Dastgir, I have never encountered anyone else who has read anything, any book, for the past several years. I laughed and said: ‘seriously’. He smiled and said: ‘trust me, this sounds funny and ridiculous, but this is true, and this is tragic’. Our discussion moved on.
So when Ahsen Iqbal, the logical, Dy. Chairman Planning Commission, educated at UPEN, who reads books, who offers visions of distant future, who wants himself and Pakistan to be part of the world, of modernity, of 21st century, protests on an issue, one has to take it seriously. Even otherwise I remember that how Ahsen Iqbal and Khawaja Saad Rafique had been the most articulate and convincing spokespersons for PMLN, on tv platforms, from the initial period of electronic media till 2013, when they were seen as opposition – a power of articulation and convincing they have mostly lost, but they fail to realize: Why?. And in this failure of reflection, also lies their failure to understand what motivates or even defines ‘free media’ and how they were able to exploit this facility – of a media independent of the govt.- to enhance their politics first against Musharraf and then again Zardari. But this is a topic I will revert to, at another time.
Ahsen was talking of the Being-777 controversy. He protested that media has turned a non-issue into an issue. (he forgot it was raised by the real leader of the opposition, Imran Khan, who got around 8 million votes) Ahsen argued that for the past seventy years, all heads of state, or chief executives in Pakistan have been using, hiring planes from national flag carriers for their trips abroad. This is a practice, a convention world wide. He referred to the ongoing or recent trips of PM Narendra Modi in planes of Air India with his delegation.
I was not that sure if, in a country like Pakistan, full and complete costs or revenue losses to PIA from its Boeing-777 (capacity 300-400) being kept out of its scheduled commercial cycle for 3-4 days will ever be accurately calculated or reimbursed but given Ashen Iqbal’s assertion that costs will be paid, I did not want to assert.
I enquired: “Are they not official trips? do you not see any difference between the official and personal?” I reminded him of the repeated statements from Sharif family that all expenses of PM’s treatment and stay aboard will be borne by the family. How come for treatment PM Nawaz becomes a private citizen and for travel back he becomes the official PM? Ahsen Iqbal explained that ‘Prime Minister is Prime Minister, he has his privileges, these are not only in convention but these are also written in law’; he further explained that while traveling to UK, PM travelled in the small seven seater, ‘Gulf Stream Jet’ but after the surgery it was not advisable to fly in the small jet, because there are more pressure changes inside a small jet, and air flights and the hours of immobilization involved can produce blood clots, from the legs, even in normal healthy persons, and PM Nawaz after his heart surgery, after his triple or quadruple CABG, was far more susceptible to clot formation; it was important for him to walk about and move in the plane.
“But PIA is supposed to be a corporation; its has a financial base line, govt. has been talking of its losses, its reform, its mismanagement by past governments and of fixing its spread sheet for privatization; surely there are huge costs involved when a Boeing-777 used for cross-atlantic flights is diverted from its schedule, (about $20,000/hour) is reconfigured for VIP travel, then reconfigured back for passengers, so who will bear these costs? I enquired. Ahsen Iqbal asserted that PIA has reserve capacity, its flight schedules keep changing, it makes alternate arrangements for the passengers and Establishment Division or PMO will pay; it always does; costs are always calculated and these are reimbursed to PIA.
I was not that sure if, in a country like Pakistan, full and complete costs or revenue losses to PIA from its Boeing-777 (capacity 300-400) being kept out of its scheduled commercial cycle for 3-4 days will ever be accurately calculated or reimbursed but given Ashen Iqbal’s assertion that costs will be paid, I did not want to assert. I then asked that why no one in the Govt. or PIA has been able to explain all this, all these logical facts, in so many words? where are your other cabinet colleagues? who has created this story of the ‘Camp Office in London’ and what was the need? we know that there was no notified ‘camp office’ and probably no more than 20-25 persons boarded from Stansted? But to this Ahsen Iqbal had no clarity or I could not get any, perhaps he was not aware of the statement issued by the PIA spokesperson, apparently on the behest of the PIA Chairman and published in all papers.
I have produced faithfully, most contents of our discussion, if not all, from the notes I had written immediately afterwards. I had promised to Ahsen Iqbal that I will convey his point of view to my viewers and my readers. And I have exactly done that. I will share this on social media and all readers can make their own judgements. In a separate blog, I will explain why the hiring of a Boeing-777 became controversial? Why most public is not prepared to accept that PM Nawaz needed this kind of privilege? Before raising this issue in my program on Sunday, I conduced a snap poll on twitter and almost 90% of the several thousands who responded within 24 hours or less were convinced that this non-commercial use of PIA-777 for PM should be investigated.
— Moeed Pirzada (@MoeedNj) July 9, 2016
Why do the young educated Pakistanis feel like this? What lies behind all this? I will explain in a separate detailed blog.
Moeed Pirzada is prominent TV Anchor & commentator; he studied international relations at Columbia Univ, New York and law at London School of Economics. Twitter: MoeedNj. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy. This piece was first published in Moeed Pirzada’s official page. It has been reproduced with permission.