Malik Riaz of Bahria Town may be the best prism through which one can understand today’s Pakistan. He personifies the potential that this ‘land of opportunities’ offers, provided you know how to go about it. Palm-greasing, he says, is an essential skill here and that he knows how to attach ‘wheels’ to his work files — a metaphor used for bribery. “Believe me, nothing moves in this country without wheels and my files, I tell you, never stop,” he said boldly in a TV interview, an impish smile on his face. That tells something about the man and the country where he, like it or not, happens to be the most powerful person.
His is a rags-to-riches story that should beat the Carnegies and Rockefellers hands down. The ‘robber barons,’ as the American Moguls were labeled a century ago, got their share of flak. But the biggest realtor baron of this country remains unscathed because he has got the media literally in his pocket.
Not much is known about one of the richest man in Pakistan except for the bits that he has told about himself. Even Wikipedia says that the details are sketchy on how a small-time labourer climbed up the ladder to become the 10th richest man of Pakistan with assets worth $800 million. He may actually be worth much more if we take into account his ‘file-wheeling’ skills.
The information about him trickles down through carefully selected journalists who throw out carefully orchestrated images of his personality. A self-made man, he passed his secondary school exam by marginal numbers. Equally marginal were his skills as he could not even drive a car. He started off from petty chores, the first being a house whitewash. We are told that he walked for 10 kilometers just to save Rs 50. He had to sell household items, tears in his eyes, to get his daughter medical treatment.
He is as somebody living next door with whom ordinary people could identify; somebody they could trust with their savings. He almost comes across as Amitabh Bachan, as in Bollywood movie Tirshol, though of course minus the superstar’s beauty, particularly his hair. Suddenly, the hero morphs into a dazzling rich person that the lay people aspire to be. A halo of glitz and glamour circles around his head. Malik Riaz travels in his private jet, lives in seven-star mansions, parks a Bentley in his porch and drives with a fleet of SUVs with a battalion of armed private commandoes that should match the prime minister’s protocol.
Malik Riaz is undoubtedly the most powerful person in Pakistan. He rubs shoulders with the high and mighty that seem to be at his beck and call. He calls former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani’s son, MNA Abdul Qadir Gilani, as Bunny, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s son, Salman, who takes care of the family business, as Sill. I suspect, in the same pattern, he calls President Asif Zardari and Benazir Bhutto’s son, Bilawal, as Billu. His favourite pass time, we are told, is to order senior functionaries on transfer and postings using some real rough language. This happens on a speaker phone while the worthy guests get amused and awed by his audacity. The treatment was recently meted out to another Malik with an ‘R’ who, outraged at one stage, suspended the officers who had gone to Riaz for a prized posting. The matter got resolved by the Man on the Hill later.
On a typical day, he starts his day with a working breakfast with rich Arab Sheikhs; lunch at the Presidency — with aalu shora he says; evening tea with the Punjab Chief Minister; dinner with top generals and late coffee with the biggest industrialists of this country. But he does not sleep before giving ‘tweets’ to his favourite journalists on how and what to say in the media. If he does not run Pakistan, who does?
Malik remains the biggest paradox. He has got more faces than that Hindu mythological figure from Lanka. Is he the saviour who gives jobs to 20,000 people who in turn cater to a work force of 17000 ancillary industries? Bahria Town brochure boasts that 100,000 households are dependent on them. He goes on to claim, almost in the same hyperbole that he used in the $ 45 billion fiasco, that Bahria Town workers might stretch from Lahore to Rawalpindi if they are lined up with their arms stretched wide open.
But the questions remain: Is he the great visionary who changed the housing concept in Pakistan, providing the middle and lower classes high quality residential facilities at a much lower cost?
Is he the messiah who is seen feeding hundreds of people, helping the sick, needy and the handicapped? Bahria Town sponsors many schools, hospitals and charity organizations.
Is he the trouble shooter who somehow emerges as a referee in every political wrestling match. He played a role in Musharraf’s deal with Benazir Bhutto. He was again involved in the Bhurban meeting that led to an agreement between Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. He was instrumental in arranging a patch-up between Asif Zardari and the Chaudharies of Gujrat. Only recently, he popped up out of nowhere to play a role in Tahirul Qadri’s long march.
Is he the hero of the poor who, as Amitabh Bachan, made it big in the cruel world of the rich. He likes to compare himself with ‘Sultana Daku,’ a local version of Robinhood who looted the rich to distribute among the poor. There are more shades of his personality in real life than the roles that Amitabh may have played in films.
For many, he is worse than Prem Chopra. All that glitz about good work is just a smoke screen that he maintains to hide a sinister villain that comes across in dozens of cases that he attends in various courts and police stations all over the country. The crimes that he is accused of include murder, kidnapping, forgery, fraud, extortion and many other evil things that all Bollywood villains put-together could not have done. These cases run into hundreds, mostly involving land-grabbing where his goons forcibly took away land from poor people to sell houses, some of which cost as high as Rs 220 million—the Sultana Daku in reverse here. Just to explain the extent of accusations against him, he has still got at least three dozen cases before the Supreme Court, despite the disposal of double the number of cases. In one day last year, the Supreme Court issued 44 orders against Bahria Town in various cases.
So how do we judge him. Will the real Malik Riaz please stand up? It is all the more important to understand him as he enjoys the power in this country as nobody else. Whatever the case, he is surely a movie character who got stuck with ordinary mortals.