Farzana Raja—the ketchup girl
The first time I saw Farzana Raja was when I went to see Asif Zardari on the sidelines of Rawalpindi district courts. This was the best opportunity to meet him when he was not in hospital where he spent half of his jail time.
Asif was always surrounded by his usual courtiers who competed with each other to please the boss—a jail bird he might be but as Benazir’s hubby he was still worth, as an Urdu proverb goes, sawa laakh. A minion brought a message from his soothsayer, one Motumal that good news was around the corner (Motumal remains the chief inspiration for many Presidential decisions). Not to be left behind, another crony gave him a talisman from the Pir of Golra Sharif that would supposedly rid him of the evil eye (the Pir has now declared Asif as the evil eye and backs Tahirul Qadri against him). The crony-in-chief, now in-charge of President’s golden brief case, jail doctor Qayyum Soomro brought biscuits and patties. I saw this overly made-up woman squirming on her seat to get noticed. Suddenly she dashed to Asif Zardari to pour ketchup in his plate and then turned around to inform us, “Asif sahab likes his patty with ketchup.” As Asif gave her an approving smile she suddenly broke up in tears. A little taken aback, Asif explained that her husband Pir Muqaram Ali Shah was also in jail for a printing case fraud.
You could not tell from her gaudy clothes or from the neon red lipstick that she could have been slightly distressed over her husband’s imprisonment or from her hunky-dory demeanor a while ago. But when she cried her tears were the size of water melons. Everybody was moved—Asif Zardari the most. Asif told us that she was such a good party worker that she would miss her husband's hearing but never his own. No surprises there. Then he cajoled her affectionately, his grin as broad as Suez, saying, “Come on girlie, give me a little more ketchup. Instantly, she cheered up like a doll. This woman, I thought, should either be nominated for a Mother Teresa award or be given an Oscar for her superb acting. Whether in Hollywood or Vatican, I was sure then that this woman would go places.
My guess about Hollywood, though mixed with a few tricks from Bollywood, has been proved right after 14 years. Farzana Raja is the biggest star and PPP’s poster girl. She makes great speeches and is seen shouldering Asif Zardari in every second picture. Farzana has outsmarted the other two competing party Effs—Fehmida and Farahnaz—by miles. She is now the most powerful person in the PPP as, among others things, she runs the party’s biggest welfare scheme, the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). Every party member looks up to her for funds. The media dare not touch her as she has cleverly allocated a large amount of money for television advertisements. One word against her and the ads involving millions and billions of rupees are retracted. Articles in her name get published on every party event. So much is her power that on Benazir Bhutto’s death anniversary, most mainstream newspapers rejected the article of Bashir Riaz who was the closest confidant of the late leader and instead published Farzana’s article. She is virtually shown as the god mother of Benazir’s children standing close to Aseefa and Bilalwal.
Would Benazir have liked this? “No way,” said an old timer. “She would be turning in her grave to see Farzana take over the party.” Old stalwart Naheed Khan confirms that Farzana is a late entrant to the party. She got introduced because of her now divorced husband Pir Muqaram Shah whose brother Pir Mazharul Haq is a Sindh Minister. In fact, Benazir disliked her because she once pulled a smart one on her. Benazir had Jahangir Badr seated with her in a party meeting. He got up for a minute for an errand and Farzana sat there pretending as if she had something to say to her. And then she got her photographed sitting next to her and got it flashed all around. Benazir was furious and asked Naheed not to let her come close to her again. She was angry when Asif got her a Sindh Assembly seat in 2002.
How did she go up so fast? Elementary: because of Watson. She beeped on Capital radar when she worked for the city’s most dubious pharmacy tycoon. The tycoon once sent her for a printing order to Printing Press of Pakistan’s Chairman. She never got back because she got married to the Chairman—no points for guessing—Pir Muqaram Shah. She’s never looked back since then—even when the poor Pir got jailed.
Rumours about her alleged marriage to a rich Pakistani American and that she holds a dual nationality are trash. Even the allegations of corruption in BISP may be baseless. But I know that she is the smartest woman in Pakistan. Ever heard about Pir Muqaram Shah now ? He is nowhere in the party and the wife that he introduced is all over. Can it be all because of that bloody ketchup? Perhaps Heinz should hire her.
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