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The ties that bind

February 10, 2013

IS it tone-deafness or brazenness? One of the two must be behind the president’s embrace of a massive property in Lahore reportedly gifted to him by Pakistan’s most controversial real-estate tycoon. And even if it wasn’t a gift, the mansion’s location in Malik Riaz’s Bahria Town means that it doesn’t take a public-relations genius to figure out how bad the optics are. Rumours of the businessman’s closeness to the president — and other top government and military officials — have long done the rounds, and in the public’s eyes this action will only connect the two men more directly than ever. The message is clear: the country may grumble on about corruption in politics, but the head of state doesn’t particularly care. And the details don’t help; even if half the rumours about several acres of land, a helipad and a runway, bomb- and bullet-proof exteriors, and a price tag in the billions of rupees are true, they make the president look like a man remarkably out of touch with the economic problems of ordinary Pakistanis. Sadly the sprawling estate nearby of his political arch rivals, the Sharifs, is a reminder that the lack of sensitivity cuts across party lines.

The irony is that the point of the Lahore house is reportedly to serve as a base from which to strengthen the PPP’s electoral prospects in Punjab and deflect some of the Supreme Court’s irritation in the dual-office case. Call a building Bilawal House instead of President House and move it from Islamabad to Lahore, and somehow that will resolve the contradiction involved in a head of state strategising and negotiating, if not campaigning, for a particular party in the run-up to elections. The concrete images of the Lahore mansion, though, might prove a little harder to shake off.