Partisan, political rhetoric both helps and destroys. It is the albatross.
Such is what has happened with Imran Khan, Pakistan’s new prime minister, and his AW-139 helicopter.
The funny thing is, he is entitled to fly it. In fact, he has two, one on standby. This is part, not just of his perquisites, but also for performing his functions as the P.M.
In which case, one might ask: what’s the controversy about; why such hilarious memes; why the need for his Information Minister, Fawad Chaudhry, to defend his short hops from the Prime Minister’s Office to his perch in Banigala with the remarkably absurd gem about the helo costing Rs. 55/km?
Inevitable is what comes to mind. Consider.
Khan’s entire rhetoric, for years, has revolved around the corruption and profligacy of previous rulers: princely expenditures; large entourages; cavalcades; security protocols et cetera. Contrast this with what the PTI government will do: cut down on such wasteful expenditure. And then, when you become the government and start talking biscuits, as opposed to high teas, put out officially-sanctioned video clips of ministers traveling without security protocols (a terribly bad idea), iterate and reiterate on the talk show circuit every evening that you are the best and the most non-profligate event that has happened to the country this side of the Gospels, your three round trips in an AW-139 are like the ancient mariner deadpanning to everyone: “With my cross-bow/ I shot the albatross.”
It will get the partisan tongues wagging, the wits will have a field day, and social media reactions will begin to hurt as much as they do others when the messaging platform is in the hands of the PTI.
Put another way, PTI is now weighed down by its own rhetoric. There has been wastage; it happens everywhere with varying degrees. Money in the hands of the government, unlike the private sector, is almost never spent efficiently. That said, it does not mean that everyone is corrupt or profligate. There’s also the need to differentiate between how political leaders live privately and what they can or cannot do when in public office, often for systemic reasons.
Not that Khan ever probably has, but in theory he could, as a private citizen, travel in a Suzuki Mehran (incidentally, social media users were also abuzz with rumors that the new government wants all its functionaries to only use Mehrans!). Not as the P.M., though. As the P.M., he has to follow some protocols related not just to the dignity of his office but also to his security. That’s a no-brainer. He would have faced no problem with his helo hops if he hadn’t deployed the rhetoric the way he did, against his political opponents.
Corollary: it’s not about AW-139 or the cost associated with the helo; it’s squarely about Khan in AW-139. [NB: quite another thing that the way the cost is being worked out on Twitter (fuel per km!!) would leave aviation experts in fits.]
But let’s leave the helo aside for a while. Let’s talk austerity. Is it about biscuits, to use a figure of speech? Clearly not. Is it about getting the foreign minister or the finance and commerce ministers to fly 14 hours in economy so they are frazzled and frayed by the time they get to where they are supposed to be to conduct the business of state? What’s next? A policy to arrange board and lodge for state functionaries through Airbnb?
Let’s rid ourselves of such absurdities. It’s not about how you travel but how you perform that matters to the sensible. I’d much rather the functionaries of state have the required level of comfort so they can focus on the job they have been entrusted with. And if they still fail to deliver, there should be accountability.
Yes, there have been instances of officeholders taking hangers-on with them. That must be discouraged. Ditto for foreign travel: there is essential travel and there’s non-essential travel. When the P.M. begins to talk about it disparagingly, he begins to conflate the two and that is dangerous.
Here’s why I say this: while it is crucial to reform the civil service, the rhetoric has begun to vitiate the atmosphere against public servants. Yes, as Dr. Nadeem Ul Haque and others have been arguing for a long time, we must look into whether we want to have generalists in a world that now revolves around expertise. All of that is legit and should be debated. But let’s not make the debate reductive.
Organizations are networks; they develop vested and institutional interests. The Army is another good (or bad) example of this trend. Pakistan is not peculiar in this regard, as is borne out by Organization Theory. This is why there should be external scrutiny of executive functions. The Parliament, its committees and subcommittees are supposed to be one such mechanism.
The executive also has the option of bringing together experts outside the government to put a check on organizational tendencies to ‘satisfice’. The point is that the issue of reform is more than about serving biscuits and/or helo hops.
The real question for the P.M.’s security people is whether he should be traveling so much to Casa Khan in Banigala. Anyone who has been there and I did, once, to interview Khan, would know that securing that place would be nightmarish. It is exposed from all sides. More than the controversy about his helo rides, to me it’s about creating a security hazard for himself and everyone responsible for his security. Surely, that has a cost and I don’t think anyone, certainly not our friend Fawad Chaudhry, was looking into that when he worked out the ‘cost’ on his cellphone calculator.
In conclusion, let’s drop the absurdities, Mr. P.M., and start doing some real reforms work. Your heart is in the right place. Now you just need to get the head positioned properly because the work ahead is rather complex.
Haider is the executive editor at Indus News. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider