May 24, 2016
Print : Opinion

Islamabad diary

To account for their overseas properties the Sharifs are peddling the line that they were always rich and that their father, Mian Muhammad Sharif, was a big industrialist before Bhutto struck and nationalised Ittefaq Foundry.

Casting scepticism aside, even if we swallow this tale and go a step further and concede that the Sharifs were on a par with the Tatas and Birlas, the question remains: in those golden days did they own even a marla of land in the United Kingdom, let alone the gilded walkways of Mayfair?

When they were breaking world records in iron and steel production in Ittefaq Foundry – its first address not Kot Lakhpat but Brandreth Road – were they aware even of Mayfair’s location, let alone the price of property there?

We should be told what is more easily digested. Ittefaq Foundry may have been a flourishing concern in the 1970s but that never put the Sharifs at the level of the Dawoods, the Valikas, the Adamjees, or the rest of the 22 families. Their rise, indeed their unstoppable rise, came afterwards, during the Zia era after they had managed to curry favour with Gen Zia’s Punjab governor, Lt-Gen Ghulam Jilani, who earlier in Bhutto’s time was head of the ISI.

The story goes that Jilani was building a house in Lahore and elders of the clan – I am being coy – looked to the construction of the house. Take it as a safe bet that anyone who looks to the many details involved in house construction – provision of sand, cement, sariya, work force, etc, you visit your under-construction house and you see a diligent soul superintending the work – creates a place for himself in your heart.

When the Zia regime began looking for civilian faces, the access to Gen Jilani paid off and Nawaz Sharif was picked as Punjab finance minister in 1981. There was no looking back after that.

In 1985 after Gen Zia had secured his own position as president through a laughable referendum – the question posed in the referendum was that if you were for Islam then Gen Zia would be president of the Islamic Republic for a term of five years – elections were held to the national and provincial assemblies. On Pir Pagaro’s recommendation Muhammad Khan Junejo was appointed prime minister. The question arose as to who should be Punjab chief minister. Pir Pagaro wanted Malik Allahyar Khunda. Gov Jilani was for Nawaz Sharif. Gen Zia did not want to put everything in Pir Pagaro’s basket. So, as we would say in Urdu, Nawaz Sharif’s lottery came out.

Politics, however, was not the only thing on the mind of the Sharifs. From the time Nawaz Sharif became finance minister and throughout his stint as chief minister, the Sharifs embarked on a crash industrialisation programme. Bhutto had nationalised only one Ittefaq Foundry because that is all the Sharif clan had. But taking loans left and right from state banks – and back then there were only state-owned banks – the Sharifs set up one sugar mill after the other, and other mills besides, surpassing the achievements of the Ayub-era five year plans.

It was during this time when all these mills were being set up that much like Columbus discovering America the Sharifs discovered Mayfair. During the great days of the Ittefaq Foundry they had not studied the map of Mayfair. With the acquisition of political power in Punjab, the powerhouse of Pakistan politics, the Sharifs bought their first overseas properties.

The Sharifs say they have been in the iron and steel business for the last 70 years. True…in the 1970s they were counted amongst the rich of Lahore. But theirs was run-of-the-mill prosperity, nothing to rival the big seths of Pakistani business. It is a different story today. The Sharifs are big today, very big. The question is: when did this happen, before or after the conquest of political power?

Send a rocket into outer space and this money trail would be visible from there. Courtesy Gen Jilani and the favour of Gen Zia, the Sharifs make an entry into the portals of power. Business sense and acumen they already have…no one can deny them this. Taking advantage of the new opportunities coming their way they embark on a Stalinist industrialisation programme and only then do they become squires of Mayfair. It doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes or an Ibn Batuta to spot the various milestones of this journey.

The Sharifs are not alone in enjoying such a distinctive transformation. What was Asif Zardari before his marriage to Benazir Bhutto? Partial owner of Bambino Cinema – there were other partners but the Zardaris managed the cinema – and middling zamindar in Nawabshah. But after the marriage the world became his oyster…properties everywhere: France, England, the US, you name it and the Zardari flag fluttering there.

How was all this acquired? There is nothing proven, no guilt established, no sentence handed down. Asif Zardari may be the object of a thousand rumours but in the eyes of the law he is as clean as the driven snow. Just as there are many allegations but nothing proven against the Sharifs.

Nor are civilians alone to be found in this mud-house, this bath of Baghdad or Babylon. Military loot and plunder may not be on this scale but who is the innocent who will maintain that it is not there? The one difference was spelt out to me by a real-estate tycoon. He said that when it comes to corruption civilians eat with their hands and end up spoiling their clothes. Military men are sticklers for form and eat with knife and fork. It is a strange feeling that an army which is a fighting army today, officers and men laying down their lives, still finds it difficult to cut its umbilical cord to the real-estate sector.

In a poor country such as ours, defence housing authorities, and now an air force housing colony too, singing the praises of lavish housing schemes…it’s almost obscene and certainly very tasteless. But it goes on, to the point where even the Intelligence Bureau thinks it kosher to get involved in the real-estate sector. Pakistan has survived many tribulations. It will survive RAW and the Taliban but this real estate thing looks bigger than any external threat.

Corruption is not just about morality. It makes for bad politics. We need better governance, we need a stronger democracy. But Zardaris and Sharifs, when they are into Surrey Palaces and Mayfair flats, undermine their ability to a) deliver better governance and b) stand up to the overweening power of the military.

The Torkham border closes and who does the Afghan ambassador go and see? Not anyone in the government but the army chief and when the army chief gives the word the border opens. The Angoor Adda border crossing is handed over to the Afghans…maybe for the best of reasons, but where’s the civilian input in this transaction? The PM is embroiled in Panamagate and he doesn’t know what is going on.

The Iranian president visits and the ISPR comes out with a tweet it has no business floating. And there is no one to rap its knuckles.

And we look at all this and can see the frail bark of democracy being tossed to and fro…and we look at the pilots on deck with all their property stories and never-ending evasions and our hearts, used to so much, miss another beat.