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Pakistan Seeks to Pull Plug on 'Very Important Perks'

Asia: Premier leads campaign against 'VIP culture' of lavish homes, cars, servants that come with public office.

November 09, 1996|BARRY BEARAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Normally, it isn't newsworthy when a head of government uses the bathroom, but this trip to the toilet was such a stunner that the Jang, Pakistan's biggest paper, ran a photo of it on Friday's front page.

No one ever doubted that Miraj Khalid has ordinary biological needs; it was just such a curiosity to see a prime minister making use of the regular facilities, entering the lavatory in the economy section of a plane.

"People Are Surprised by the Simple Ways of the Prime Minister," read the accompanying headline that ran across seven columns of the broadsheet.

Pakistan's 4-day-old caretaker government, trying to curry public favor, has begun a campaign against this nation's so-called VIP culture, the astonishing number of perks that have come to accompany high public office: lavish houses, fleets of automobiles, first-class air travel, free medical care abroad, and coteries of secretaries, bodyguards, drivers and servants.

"The interim government has decided that every federal minister will have only one car," said spokesman Irshad Ahmad Haqqani, who then gave examples of excesses in state governments. "Punjab's chief minister has 60 cars; each Cabinet minister in Baluchistan has 10. Now we must practice, not just preach, frugality."

The first hint of the derailment of the gravy train came when President Farooq Leghari fired Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

*

Corruption is the daily bread of Pakistani politics, so there was no surprise when he accused her government of larceny--but the odd thing was his decision to close VIP lounges at the airports.

Those lounges had become a mark of social class, used by rich and powerful people whose drivers sped them along a special driveway to a special entrance. "Please understand, in the West's airports, you don't need a VIP lounge because the waiting areas are comfortable," Kamran Khan, the son of the governor of Baluchistan, tried to explain. "Here, the airports are a mess."

So is the economy. Inflation exceeds 20%. Currency reserves are inadequate to secure new loans. More than $1 billion in new taxes have just been levied. About 80% of the federal budget goes toward defense spending and debt servicing.

Millions of Pakistani laborers work for about $4 a day. To them, the caravans of 10 or 20 government Mercedeses seem a bit extravagant.

"The government is a joke," said Ahmed Syed, a store clerk. "No pockets are big enough for the thieves in our government."

Poor people say that VIP stands for Very Important Pig. In Islamabad, the capital, signs of ostentatious wealth are legion, much of it the high yield of the drug trade and public service. The well-off agree that an ego-driven display of affluence exists, although they usually only notice it in others.

Among the standard accouterments: jeeps, mobile phones and guards with AK-47s. Weddings are often 10 days of rituals and parties.

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A campaign against the VIP culture began several months ago with the entry into politics of Imran Khan, one of Pakistan's most popular men. A hero on the cricket field, the captain of an underdog team that won the 1992 World Cup was once a dashing playboy who made the rounds in London nightclubs.

Married now, he has discarded his Armani suits for more traditional dress. He has started his own political party.

Ironically enough, so far he has garnered the most attention for criticizing "brown sahibs," the Pakistanis who covet Western things and affect airs.

The interim government, which will remain in place for at least 90 days until new elections, has adopted some of Khan's populist message.

"In a short time, we can demonstrate that people don't have to put up with corrupt government," said Shafqat Mahmood, one of the new Cabinet members.

Cynics say all this anti-VIP talk is nothing but rhetoric.

"Most Pakistanis still live in rural villages; they may say they don't like politicians who make a big show of wealth, but when it comes time to vote, they want someone they fear and hold in awe," Sen. Manzook Ghichki said.

Something of an old-time leftist, Ghichki was nevertheless eating a bountiful buffet lunch at the exclusive Islamabad Club.

"The VIP culture has deep roots," he said. "To try to tackle it in 90 days is hypocrisy."

*

If the new government is engaged in a show of force against corruption, Khalid is well-cast as prime minister.

Once the speaker of the National Assembly, he was called out of retirement to temporarily head the government. He is generally considered an incorruptible politician, as rare in Islamic Pakistan as a side of bacon.

He has lived modestly in Lahore, behind one of the city's busiest markets. After his well-photographed economy-class flight, he shunned the ritual motorcade and took friends home for a meal prepared by his wife.

"If Miraj Khalid is comfortable living this way, let him," said Sara Talpur, wife of one of the Bhutto ministers turned out of office. "It all depends on what a person is used to. I'm used to a better life."

Sitting in an elegant home, surrounded by crystal light fixtures and handmade Oriental rugs, Talpur was visiting with two other wives of ousted Cabinet chiefs. None of them could fathom this big fuss over the VIP culture.

"Closing the VIP lounge does not help people in the economy lounge," Talpur said. "They are still going to be in the economy lounge."

Talpur's friend Aalmas Qumar recalled those first hours after the caretaker government took over.

"A police van came and picked up our bodyguards," she said. "Then, in the morning, a message came from the ministry to return our cars. It all could have been done much nicer. When the servants had to leave us, they cried.

"Our two phone operators had to go, our night guard, the day guard, the two drivers, the sweeper, the chef, the waiter. Fortunately, I've my own maid and washer man and a major-domo kind of person. This I've paid for myself."

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