Simplicity in ‘new’ Pakistan
Prime Minister-in-waiting Imran Khan in his victory address said he would feel ashamed to live in the Prime Minister’s House that was like a royal palace. He pledged to turn the Prime Minister’s house into an educational institution. Similarly, he said, he would like all the Governor’s Houses and Chief Minister’s Houses all over the country to be converted into public institutions. While the pledge sounds good, it has overtones of a populism that is not new. His predecessor, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi of the PML-N did not reside in the Prime Minister’s House during his 10-month tenure, preferring instead to reside in his own home in Islamabad. Nevertheless, despite this gesture of abstinence, the Prime Minister’s House continued to function as his and his staff’s official offices. Other examples in this regard from the past are the pledges by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 1997 and 2013 that he would not be living in the Prime Minister’s House but each time the announcement was nullified by the security agencies in the light of the terrorist threat. That threat, it must be reiterated, has been pushed back but by no means totally eliminated, as the terrorist incidents during the election campaign and even on polling day proved. Imran Khan ordered his chief minister Pervez Khattak not to live in the Chief Minister’s House in Peshawar during the last five years, but that noble gesture too could not be entirely carried out because of security considerations. To say that the same considerations may nullify Imran Khan’s noble intentions now is too obvious. The Prime Minister’s House stands on 800 Kanals with a nine bedroom residence for the prime minister, housing and flats for his retinue of federal secretaries, civil and military (the latter runs the budget for the estate), as well as support and security staff. Shifting the prime minister to some other location, such as Imran Khan’s suggestion of the Minister’s Enclave would pose major headaches for his security detail and is therefore likely to be struck down in the present circumstances. And while we are on the subject, it needs to be stated that since Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s time, the posts of military secretary and ADCs from all three armed forces have been transferred en masse from the President to the prime minister's office. This is unjustified as democratically elected prime ministers the world over do not have such unnecessary indulgences. Doing away with these superfluous posts would sit well with the thrust of Imran Khan’s austerity stance.
While it may sound churlish in the circumstances of the impending taking of office of the new prime minister, and despite the fact that it lies in the private, not public domain, we should remind ourselves (and Imran) that he lives in a 300 Kanal estate in Banigala with eight bedrooms and other sprawling facilities, including a separate PTI secretariat and mostly travels in chartered or private aircraft. Not to put too fine a point on it, if Imran khan desires his and his government’s example of austerity to send the right message to the people that would encourage shunning of ostentation, it is welcome. But the interests of the state must take priority over personal or popular gestures. It is therefore advisable that Imran Khan at least stay in the Prime Minister’s secure compound, even if he plumps for one of the more modest establishments in the estate and the main dwelling be made the State Guest House for use by foreign dignitaries that visit the country. That would answer both the demand for austerity as well as ensure that the chief executive is adequately protected from the terrorist threat that still lingers on our horizon.