A house for Zardari

Irfan Husain

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I’m currently having a problem getting my head around the concept of a house with a covered area of 82,959 square feet.
I suppose this is because when I’m in Karachi, I stay in my old flat measuring around 700 square feet. So I’m grappling with the size of Zardari’s Bilawal House in Lahore. And before readers ascribe my criticism to envy, let me say that the last thing I would want is a house this big.
Read: Who owns Lahore’s Bilawal House?
I mean, how would you keep it clean? And Lahore’s climate would demand heating in winter and air-conditioning in summer. Who — apart from Zardari — could afford it? Just think of the battalions of servants you’d need to maintain the place. Does the ex-president have an indoor polo ground? I’m sure he maintains a stable of polo ponies there.

Zardari is not alone in his drive to acquire property.

These details emerged from an income tax investigation into the ownership of Bilawal House. For the last few years, rumours have done the rounds about the palatial house Malik Riaz, Pakistan’s real estate king and owner of the octopus-like Bahria Town operation, is supposed to have presented Zardari when he was president.
Now, we learn that Bahria Town has valued the property at Rs480 million; out of this sum, the Zardari Group has paid Rs170m. Although this may seem like a lot to an impecunious hack like me, I’m told it’s actually a bargain. After all, the total area of the land is 844,379 square feet, so you could probably have a cricket field there, with room to spare.
According to a PPP spokesman, young Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari is one of the directors of Zardari Group, with his aunt, Faryal Talpur, being co-director. His younger sisters are shareholders. Apparently, Asif Zardari gave up his directorship on becoming president.
Also read: Lahore’s Bilawal House still owned by Bahria Town: spokesperson
Given the corporate structure of the group, I assume Bilawal was party to the decision to acquire this monstrosity. Did he at any point say: ‘Hang on. The PPP is a political party that stands for the poor and the deprived. It would be inappropriate for the chairman to own such a lavish mansion.’
Or was he not consulted? Did Malik Riaz just wave his magic wand and make the palace appear without any input from the Zardari family? Have the younger generation ever asked their father about the source of his seemingly unlimited funds?
And have they ever wondered what their late mother would have thought of this hideosity? Granted, Benazir Bhutto was no stranger to luxury in her tragically curtailed lifetime. But she was conscious about perceptions: I know she was privately furious when she found out about the purchase of the infamous ‘Surrey House’ by a shell company allegedly controlled by her husband.
When news of that scandal broke, I wrote in a column that her government had lost its moral right to govern. I was later told by common friends that she had been very upset by my article. But she was caught in a quandary: without being able to acknowledge her husband’s ownership, she was forced into unconvincing denials.
Of course Asif Zardari is not alone in his relentless drive to acquire property. Nawaz Sharif and his family are reported to have a house and a number of multimillion pound luxury flats in London’s exclusive Mayfair district, apart from other valuable properties. Raja Rental, our ex-prime minister, is alleged to own an expensive flat in the new London development, One Hyde Park. This is an apartment complex where Russian oligarchs have spent scores of millions of pounds on huge flats.
Lesser politicians as well as bureaucrats and businessmen have invested in property in Dubai. In fact, Pakistanis are the second biggest investors in the emirate’s booming real estate market.
Given this insatiable lust for money and property, should we be surprised or disgusted by the size and opulence of Bilawal House? Frankly, I never had any expectation of the ex-president exercising much moral judgement about flaunting his wealth. But I did expect a higher standard of social conscience from his children.
Perhaps I am being unfair, and despite their part shares in the Zardari Group, they don’t have any say in what is done in their name. But as well-educated, bright young people who were hopefully raised without feudal values, they ought to realise that this kind of vulgar display of wealth is against their political aspirations.
I realise I have no right to lecture them. But having supported the PPP since long before they were born, and having had the privilege of knowing their mother, I am suggesting that they take a long, hard look at where the PPP now stands, and what has reduced it to its present pathetic condition.
Much of the reason for its decline is the fact that most of its leadership puts personal enrichment ahead of the people it claims to represent. And Bilawal House is a symbol of this attitude.
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Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2015