The palatial mansion is baking in the blazing sun. It’s 43 degrees Celsius. Outside, the asphalt on Thandi Sarak [The Mall] is literally melting in the sweltering heat. Inside, the ambiance exudes elegance, opulence and tranquility.
The sprawling drawing room is lavishly decorated with furniture and artifacts from the British colonial times. Surprisingly, however, the air conditioners are switched off. Instead, two pedestal fans are giving out a faint stream of air.
Welcome to the Governor House, Punjab. And meet the man who lives here: Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar, a self-made entrepreneur who carved a niche for himself in British politics. For 13 years, he was a Labour MP, elected three consecutive times till his retirement in 2010. His journey from ‘Sarwar to Governor’ is an inspiring story of passion, selfless contribution and indomitable will. In recognition of his services in the field of business, politics and philanthropy, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of the West of Scotland on July 10, 2014.
“Austerity begins at home," says Governor Sarwar, who has ordered all unnecessary lights and ACs switched off to conserve electricity. “Our country is facing a chronic energy crisis,” he says. “It’s stymying economic growth. And therefore, it's the responsibility of every citizen to do his bit to help the government mitigate this crisis.”
Every summer, the power crisis worsens when the demand-supply gap becomes unbridgeable. The resulting load-management, a euphemism for frequent outages, triggers riots in towns and cities, some of which have to go without electricity for up to 20 hours a day.
Sarwar says the PML-N government is doing everything it can to tackle this issue. An array of projects has been set in motion. All sources, coal, solar, hydel, nuclear and bio, are being tapped to add more megawatts to the national grid. And he believes time is not far when Pakistan will be producing surplus electricity.
From his demeanour, Sarwar appears to be an upright man, quite unlike the bulk of Pakistani politicians. He believes that merit, and only merit, should be the sole criterion for every job. Favouritism and cronyism has to be eliminated.
When the turbaned orderly served grapefruit juice, Sarwar’s cellphone rang. I slurped the juice while he fielded the call.
“Listen, as the chancellor of all universities in the province, I want ruthless merit to be ensured in admissions. No politician, no bureaucrat, no wadera, no chaudhry would be obliged," I overheard him telling the caller. I didn’t know who the caller was until the governor himself told me it was the provincial chief secretary.
Sarwar is man of no pretensions. And he is quite unhappy with the extravagant lifestyle of civil bureaucrats in Pakistan. “One bureaucrat uses up to 10 official vehicles. A poor country like ours cannot afford this. The government must rein in the bureaucracy." Sarwar says that in the United Kingdom bureaucrats don’t use official conveyance. They come to office in their own cars.
Unfortunately, there is no services culture, no self-accountability in Pakistan, he laments. "Yesterday I met with 100 Grade 20-21 bureaucrats at the Governor House. I asked them to wake up their conscience,” he says. “If they develop self-accountability, they can hold patwaris, tehsildars and kungos accountable."
The government’s foremost responsibility is to ensure speedy justice, says Sarwar. He, however, candidly admits that the government has failed to deliver justice. “In Pakistan, the law gives respect to the high and mighty. No one wipes the tears of the poor.”
All ills aside, the governor is against unnecessary self-demonisation. "It’s incorrect to say that Pakistanis are more corrupt than other nations. Corruption also exists in Western societies – but they have such systems in place that make it very difficult for the influential to get involved in corrupt practices,” he says. "We should also introduce such a system of checks and balances.”
Turing to the current political hullabaloo, Sawar says we should have a place where politicians, social or right activists and politico-religious figures can come and voice their views. “In the UK, they have Hyde Park. And I’ve proposed the government declare Minar-e-Pakistan the Hyde Park of Pakistan where anyone can speak his/her heart out freely."
Pakistan’s political history is pockmarked by long periods of martial law brought on by military coups. Our political opportunists share the blame for becoming willful abettors or facilitators of military rulers. They have also been instrumental in prolonging military rules in Pakistan.
But like a born optimist Sarwar sees a silver lining. "I agree that democracy in Pakistan hasn’t yet matured. But the first democratic transition of power is an encouraging sign," he says referring to the 2013 parliamentary election which saw the PML-N taking over power from the PPP.
Like a master statesman, Sarwar defused an explosive situation created by the diversion of the Emirates flight carrying Pakistan Awami Tehreek chief Tahirul Qadri and his aides from Islamabad to Lahore last month. His statesmanship won him several admirers.
Qadri returned to "topple the government of the Sharif brothers and bring about a revolution". The Chaudhrys of Gujrat and Sheikh Rashid Ahmed of Awami Muslim League have also chipped in. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is planning a ‘tsunami march’ on August 14 in Islamabad to protest the government’s reluctance to consider his complaints of ‘massive rigging’ in the 2013 elections.
Doomsayers believe together all these parties are planning to topple the government. They, however, believe that someone else is pulling the strings. But Sarwar doesn’t agree. “Khan has publicly said that he doesn’t want to derail democracy,” he says. "Similarly, Jamaat-e-Islami has also publicly professed a commitment to democracy – and declined to become part of any movement against the government."
Pakistani politicians are as impassioned as they are impatient. “Five years is a long tenure. And our politicians can’t wait. In the UK, there are three main political parties. Usually, two of them come to power while the third is a smaller party. And even this smaller party gives the ruling party a tough time in parliament," says Sarwar.
Conversely, there are 100-plus parties registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan. "In the UK, television channels give airtime to parties in proportion to their representation in the House of Lords. The situation in Pakistan is, however, very unfortunate," he says.
Pakistan is facing in a slew of internal and external threats. And Sarwar suggests the opposition parties stop mudslinging and vilification campaigns – and instead ensure the government focuses on the real issues like law and order, energy crisis and economic development.
“In the West, oppositions have their shadow cabinets. Our opposition should also learn from them. They should form a shadow cabinet, a shadow foreign minister, a shadow interior minister, a shadow energy minister, et el. And they should give parallel policies on key issues," he says. "Unfortunately, this isn’t happening. And more unfortunately the media has never questioned the opposition on this."
Separatist groups have been fighting a low-key insurgency in Balochistan since 2004 which became deadlier following the killing of popular Baloch chieftain Nawab Akbar Bugti in a military operation in 2006. Alarmists believe Balochistan is on the verge of breakaway.
Sarwar doesn't agree. “There are a lot of positive things about Balochistan. Security situation is improving. The provincial government has taken the lead in holding local bodies’ elections,” he says. “This is unfortunate that we only look at negativity.”
Sarwar believes the PML-N has done a lot to heal the wounds of the Baloch people. Even though the PML-N had secured a simple majority in Balochistan – but it offered the National Party and Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party a chance to form a coalition government,” he says, praising Sharif for his ‘political sagacity’.
Sarwar says the unsavoury criticism of the security forces over alleged rights abuses in Balochistan is unfortunate. “Indian forces have been flagrantly violating rights in disputed Kashmir state – but have you ever heard Indian media criticising their military for these excesses?”
He says that the army should be given respect as an institution of national security. “You know, when the bier carrying the funeral of a fallen soldier passes a village in the UK, the whole village turns up to pay respect,” he says.
In December, last year, the European Union (EU) granted Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) Plus status to Pakistan with an impressive count of 406 votes, allowing Pakistani products a duty-free access to the European market. Governor Sarwar is credited for this achievement. He successfully lobbied in European capitals for the grant of GSP Plus status to Pakistan.
This shows Sarwar is well versed in the nuances of international diplomacy. Since the Sharif government doesn’t have a full-time foreign minister, Sarwar could be an ideal choice. Currently, Sartaj Aziz and Tariq Fatimi are Sharif’s top aide on foreign affairs. “When [late] Benazir Bhutto had visited London in 2007, she had offered me to become his foreign minister, if the PPP came to power,” Sarwar recalls. "I’d declined the offer, though," he quickly adds.
Coming to Pakistan’s most volatile neighbour, Sarwar says a stable Afghanistan is Pakistan’s interest. “Whoever comes to power in Afghanistan, we’re willing to work with him,” he says. He believes it’ll very difficult to a new administration in Kabul to ignore Pakistan.
“Pakistan is strategically located in Asia. It’s the sixth nuclear power in the world. It’s the biggest cotton grower. It has the best irrigation system in the world. And it’s the biggest contributor in the UN peacekeeping missions,” says Sarwar. “How can you ignore such an important country?”
About Pakistan’s eastern neighbhour, Sarwar is not worried about the ascension of right-wing politician Narinder Modi. “Modi’s pre-poll political rhetoric was for the consumption of his constituency. I believe when extremists come to power they behave more responsibly, especially on matters of foreign affairs.”
Recent Indian media reports say that the Modi sarkar is planning to abolish the special status granted to the disputed Himalayan state of Kashmir in the Indian constitution. “If the Modi government abolishes Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, it’ll be a big mistake,” Sarwar says.
Having said that, Sarwar says since Modi enjoys the support of the hardliners of Indian society – who are considered the biggest impediment to any rapprochement with Pakistan – he could resolve all contentious issues with Pakistan.
“Modi had been breathing fire against Pakistan during his election campaign – but once in the saddle, he invited not only Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif but also Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka, with whom India has frosty relations over the Tamil issue, to his swearing-in ceremony,” Sarwar points out. “Under Modi, we can hope for a new beginning in Pakistan-India relations,” he says.
Sarwar, as a member of the House of Lords, had been an outspoken critic of the US-led war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq. After the 9/11 attacks, the then British prime minister, Tony Blair, convened a session of the House of Lords to condemn the tragedy that was to change the political – in some case even physical – landscape of the world.
“In my speech in the House, I said I’m deeply saddened by the terrorist attacks. And I, on behalf of millions of Muslims in the world and Muslims in the UK, condemn the tragedy. At the same time, we have to ask ourselves about our [West’s] hypocritical foreign policies on Palestine. We have to ask ourselves have we provided justice to the people of Kashmir,” Sarwar recalls.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 22nd, 2014.