5 myths about the PM House

Haider K. Abbasi writes from his own experience of the former residence of the First Family

5 myths about the PM House
The first time I became painfully aware of my own privilege was during the drive back home from the Presidency after my father’s inauguration. We were driving home in the fancy, bulletproof government cars, police lights flashing in front of us – something I’d only seen on TV before. This is the security protocol reserved for Pakistan’s Prime Minister and other high officials. As I watched the cars blocked off by the police on the side of the roads to let us pass, I was reminded of a scene from House of Cards, except it was I who was living that scene and it was surreal and dreamlike. I did not like it at all.

In the ten months that followed, I was given a taste of what it feels to be part of Pakistan’s First Family. Although we did not live at the PM House, I did have the rare privilege of visiting the house. Contrary to what a famous television personality has tried to portray in a recent “Mahaaz” of the PM House, the occupants of the house are well aware of the privilege they have. It is unfortunate that the current ruling party chose this person for propaganda purposes, and even more unfortunate that he went on to accept the job. What was worse was that the esteemed journalist targeted former PM Nawaz Sharif and his family just a couple of days after Begum Kulsoom Nawaz had passed.

After watching the program, I believe it is my responsibility to try and dismiss some of the myths that have emerged about the PM House because of the Mahaaz TV transmission and because of the ruling party’s propaganda about the house.


1. “The PM House is a great Palace!”

The PM House can best be likened to the US White House. It is the office of the head of government and his/her official residence. It’s where the PM and family live, but more importantly, it is the official workplace of the PM. The PM House is equipped for all the needs of the chief executive – it has meeting rooms, conference rooms, and a banquet hall to entertain foreign visitors. It even has helipads – which our current PM is so fond of using! Wajahat Khan focused a lot on the chandeliers and decorations of the house, speaking in a sardonic tone. The truth is that almost all of the decorations are gifts from dignitaries around the world. His broadcast was aimed at undermining the previous government, even though the PM House was built long before Nawaz Sharif’s first term.

2. “There are 524 servants”

Imran Khan claimed in his first speech that the PM House has 524 servants. This statement is plainly false. While there may be 524 individuals working at the PM House, this includes over 100 people employed as the PM’s security, the PM’s staff, the staff who work under the PM’s staff, and various other employees such as cooks, waiting staff, caretakers and gardeners.

Going by Imran Khan’s way of counting, one could even say that there are thousands of “servants” working for the PM House because every civil servant comes under the PM. While I agree that so-called “servants” are numerous, perhaps even excessive, the PM must have essential staff. As far as the others go, these people cannot be fired as they are government employees, and may only be reallocated to other departments, which makes no difference to the national exchequer.

3. “Look at these squash courts, tennis courts, etc.”

In one scene, Wajahat Khan was seen sitting in what he called the Prime Minister’s squash court. He only showed it briefly because the court is in a dilapidated state. It looks like it hasn’t been used in at least 20 years. When I visited it, there were actually birds living inside the court, so it was more an aviary than a squash court. The same can be said about the tennis court that was briefly shown. It’s in a poor condition and doesn’t seem to have been used in years. And the gym had equipment which is older than me. But showing that doesn’t really further the propaganda.

It’s quite obvious to me that the PMs who resided there had more urgent priorities!

4. “Security protocol gives you a great feeling of power and importance”

No, security protocol is more of a burden than a privilege.

Security itself is essential. And this is something our PM Khan will likely agree with – despite criticising previous governments for their arrangements. Prime Ministers do not enjoy inconveniencing others through their strict security protocols, which may include blocking traffic at times. The PM has to travel in bulletproof cars, because its absolutely necessary to do so for his own safety. There have been several attacks on our civilian leaders in the past. Benazir Bhutto was martyred, while Shaukat Aziz barely escaped a suicide attack. As a PM, you carry the burden of always having security by your side. This means giving up on the freedom of going where you would like, and always having your movements monitored. This is something people might have difficulty understanding unless they are in that position. Even as the PM’s son I had go everywhere with security, whether it were a jog in the park, or a lunch with friends. The flipside of the the privilege is that you give up a lot of freedom you would normally have. And I know that personally I would always choose freedom over privilege.

5. “There’s a lot of fun you can have here”

In his program Wajahat Khan spoke a lot in a mocking tone – especially when talking about the “extravagance and luxuries” of the PM House. He would look at the camera derisively and pretend to be outraged by what the evil leaders had done with “our money”. You can have a lot of “fun” in place like this – that was his message. But that statement made clear his agenda. The premiership is not a fun job. It is the biggest responsibility in the nation. The job is stressful, with no days off, and no time for “fun”. The pressures that come with being the head of government in Pakistan are even more extraordinary – as not only do you have to be the head of government, you have to deal with the constantly volatile political environment, a dynamic relationship with the establishment and media trials and conspiracies everywhere.

For me, one of the worst aspects of this “expose” about the PM House was that it often became a thinly-veiled attack on civilian supremacy. At the beginning of his show, the host entered the PM’s office and simply sat on the PM’s chair. I recall from when I visited the office: the staff informed me that there was a strict protocol and this was forbidden. That is a place reserved strictly for the Prime Minister. Will we have a Mahaaz broadcast about the many large houses that military leaders and bureaucrats live in? Will Wajahat Khan go and lie down in a security chief’s bathtub? Probably not, because it is easier to attack those who have already been under media trial for years – being constantly targeted and pummeled. It is harder to go after those with the real power. Populism and propaganda are easy. True leadership without artificial sacrifices is harder.

Opening historic buildings to the public is a good move by the government and should be extended to the PM House as well. People should be allowed to see the halls of power and take in the history of the place. Public tours will help build the prestige of the institution in much the same way as the White House tours do in the US. In 1962, the US First Lady Jackie Kennedy recorded a Tour of the White House after it was restored and refurbishedThe program was viewed by millions of viewers and helped endear the house in the public’s imagination. In stark contrast, Mahaaz was aimed at exposing and humiliating civilian rulers.