It was former Engro CEO Asad Umar’s debut as a new leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, and if the standing ovation he received is any indication, Karachi’s business professionals look likely to turn their professional admiration for Umar into support for his party.
Umar was speaking in Karachi at an event organised by the PTI’s Insaf Professionals Forum, a relatively new platform set up by the party to engage ‘professionals’ in different fields as a think-tank of sorts.
Umar, who quit Engro after 27 years and officially joined the party last week, offered an engaging presentation on how to change an ‘unjust’ society into one where people can live with dignity.
Among the attendees were familiar faces on Karachi’s social circuit such as designer Sonya Battla and activist Uzma Noorani, executives at prominent firms including Indus Motors CEO Parvez Ghias and Abbott Laboratories MD Asif Jooma
, as well as a mix of excited young 20-somethings.
Umar spoke on a number of topics, peppering his speech with anecdotes and witty jibes. Following up on a comment made by PTI Sindh President Nadir Leghari about how most people in the room would agree that “Imran Khan is a good guy” but didn’t know what to do next, Umar looked at the attendees and said that this was the problem. “The country’s smartest people are disengaged from the political process.” It isn’t important, Umar reiterated, to just be ‘good’, party agenda mattered too.
While he stressed that his presentation consisted of his own thoughts on these issues, Umar linked several points to PTI strategy.
The crux of his speech was that when there are separate systems created for the elite and the rest of the country, that system “goes to hell”. “When you have private security guards, there is no focus on security. If a rich person can get a generator, there is no focus on electricity.”
“The elite,” he laughed, “have yet to figure out how to have separate roads for Prados and buses and rickshaws, which is why we have good roads!”
He explained this through the system of education in detail, noting that the current educational systems in the country had created “apartheid” because they had contributed to the social inequality. Drawing on his own life, having studied at a government school in Nursery and the Government Commerce College before he went to the Institute of Business Administration, Umar said this was the “investment” that the state had made in his education that led him to be hired by Exxon when he graduated, and make enough money in one month to equal the money the state had spent on him. He gave a ringing endorsement of the concept that there should be “one system of education” in the country. “I strongly feel that you cannot have one nation unless you have one educational system,” he said.
“Thirty per cent of children can’t get an education,” Umar lamented.
The taxation system, he said, was “heavily skewed in favour of indirect taxes”.
An employee at Engro, he said, lived in Orangi and would change two buses to get to work and paid taxes, while those driving Prados don’t.
State expenditure has to match the levels of child mortality in the country, not on the “fancy Governor Houses and Prime Minister Houses that we so like” or “intercontinental ballistic missiles” or “millions in subsidies to private enterprises”.
He highlighted how devolution was essential for the country to progress. “The 18th amendment is a step in the right direction, but if power has been transferred from Islamabad to Karachi it hasn’t made much of an impact on someone in Khairpur”. This, he said, was a party goal that has been elaborated in a new draft policy for local governance, which was recently released by party leader Jahangir Tareen.
Umar supports the concept of social protection, even though many criticise it as monetary handouts. (The Benazir Income Support Programme is one such initiative that has been criticised by opposition groups). He said the state of poverty in the country right now required this, and also for the net to be expanded.
Asad Umar also discussed foreign policy, and said he had realised that Pakistan’s policy appeared to be “negotiated subservience”. “We are willing to suspend laws as long as the price is right,” he said, drawing on conversations he had had with people who weren’t so much offended at the violations of sovereignty as they were that they had come at such little monetary benefit.
“This isn’t just about the US. There are many other examples where we don’t act as a sovereign state,” Umar said. “You have to live under international law and respect the sovereignty of others.”
Umar responded to questions from attendees and had the audience laughing when he jokingly told one person, “I can’t guarantee that I won’t fool you like other politicians have!” and “Sorry, but that is a very Harvard-Kennedy School way of thinking”. As soon as the talk was over, Umar was swallowed up by a crowd of his peers and PTI supporters, while others made a beeline for the refreshments table to catch up over biscuits and tea.
Civil-military relations: “Not to get confrontational but to engage on clear lines where the supremacy of the people of Pakistan is not compromised”
Criticising the political system: “PTI has to be very careful about this. You can criticise individuals and parties but not say that the system cannot deliver”
Power: “It is not just about being in power but how you get to power”
Hope: “The people of South Asia are exceptionally talented”
Divides: “The islands of peace and prosperity that we spend our lives on will not remain so”
Backchannel talks: “Economic policy is determined by who you know”