Asad Umar, by virtue of his personality, history, and political affiliation, ranks among the leading figures in contemporary Pakistani politics. Erstwhile CEO of food production giant Engro Corporation, he began his political career by joining the Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) in 2012. Asad Umar heads the Media, Marketing, and Policy division of PTI. He was elected to the National Assembly from NA-48 in the 2013 General Elections.
Asad Umar embodies the PTI’s conviction in ‘change’ as an instrument of socio-economic prosperity in thought, speech, and person. Given the choices he has made over the past few years, and the precedence he has given to the larger over personal interest, one can hardly question his sincerity. His ideas are as convincing as they are powerful. Coupled with the PTI’s revolutionary rhetoric, one hopes that his corporate pragmatism helps translate his, and the party’s, vision into reality.
1. Beginning with your career, you have clearly been a success. But is what you have achieved in line with what you always wanted to achieve?
Asad Umar: In the early 1990s, corporate companies, including mine, first took to defining their ‘visions’. That’s what pushed me to craft my personal vision, one that I have held on to for over twenty-five years now: to be able to make a significant, positive impact on the economic lives of the people of Pakistan. The direction has been the same since, and I have gotten the opportunity to get somewhere. Could I have gotten farther? Yes, I could have.
2. You have been the CEO of Engro Corporation, and are known as one of the highest paid individuals in Pakistan. Why then did you resign and opt for politics as a career?
AU: There are two dimensions to this. One is the compensation dimension that you refer to. That I’ve never been interested in. What Allah had already given me, was enough.
The second dimension is more important. At Engro, I had an opportunity to contribute. Our company made investments worth $1 billion in four years – something that no private company has achieved in the history of Pakistan. I was awarded Sitara-e-Imtiaz for it. So there were dramatic improvements in investments and employment, especially those of the hundred-thousand farmers who supply milk to Engro Corporation. But I left it though I was achieving what I had set out for myself in my personal vision because, potentially, there is room for making an even greater impact here. And it has been worth it. So there was an opportunity for contribution there and there’s one here. But this is different.
3. Politicians often get personal and fail to maintain their decorum in speeches and public discussions. How do you ensure that you don’t?
AU: Everyone has their own style. In the by-election campaign, when you are head-to-head with your rival, many personal details were brought up against me – the city I come from, the hotel I’m staying in, etc. But I, to the best of my knowledge, never even named the candidate I was contesting against. I think the idea is more powerful than the person. Your message is more powerful if conveyed through ideology instead of personality.
I don’t quite agree with you when you refer to personal attacks. They are not so frequent in Pakistani politics. If Nawaz Sharif says Imran Khan’s priorities are not correct in the assembly, this is not a personal attack. If we say Mian Sahib does not follow democratic norms and laws, this is not a personal attack. This is Imran Khan’s or Nawaz Sharif’s criticism of political choices and judgements.
But language is also disregarded, at times…
There are politicians who do that, yes. But, normally, our society does not accept that. People like it better if debates take place within the confines of courtesy and respect.
4. To be an optimistic is a good thing but optimism should be based on realistic grounds. Is the drastic change that PTI calls for under the slogan of Naya Pakistan really an applicable idea in the contemporary situation?
AU: That’s a good question, and an important one. And, if you don’t mind, it shows us how we have fallen from the point whence we began our journey. The man who first dreamed of Pakistan told us to aim higher than the stars. He said his plea reached the gates of heaven so that even God heard it. That is where we began and now we talk about being realistic and pragmatic. I’ll put a situation in front of you, ponder over it and make an inner judgement. General Elections, 1937: The All India Muslim League is routed, completely. The results are an electoral fiasco. Three years later, the AIML gathers in Lahore and passes a resolution on March 23. We’ll make a separate homeland for the Muslims, they say. Was that realistic? You’ve gotten a flailing three years ago, you haven’t one in a single state and you speak of a separate homeland? How is that even possible?
I ask you, had that resolution not been passed, had Quaid-e-Azam’s leadership not put forth that vision, would Pakistan have been made? If instead the resolution had been that realistically, in light of the given mandate, we should try to do better next time – would Pakistan have been made?
You see, I’m not a philosopher. I’m a businessman. What can be more pragmatic than business? I’ve been affiliated with quite a successful company and worked on projects worth billions of rupees. It does not do without pragmatism. You need pragmatism in managing day-to-day affairs, you need it to translate vision into reality. But you don’t need it to achieve big. You must think big in order to achieve big. In fact, all who have done so were once told that they didn’t talk sense and that they’d gone bonkers.
If you think things are fine in Pakistan, life’s good, neither are 48 per cent Pakistanis malnourished nor 20 million out of school, women have their rights, the state a good reputation, and the green passport invokes a positive image, then fine. Let it be. But if you want to see Pakistan somewhere better, then you’ll have to think big.
5. In the 2013 general elections, apart from rigging, what other factors contributed to making PTI the second runner-up?
AU: Internal factors. Late intra-party elections kept us from having ground organizations down to the penultimate year before the elections. There were differences within the party. Our message did not reach the rural population as successfully as did during the sit-in. Late candidate-selection, people got their tickets less than a month before the elections and around 70 per cent of these were novices.
6. Are you satisfied with the recent LG elections? And how important is Local Government?
AU: In Islamabad, as per the delimitations by the Election Commission of Pakistan in June, half the seats were urban, half rural – which is, roundabout, the distribution of our population. The same ECP, when it delimited the regions three months later, reduced the urban to 17 per cent against a 33 per cent of rural seats. That alone, if rectified, would win PTI an additional three to four seats.
Secondly, the election was held on a working day when everyone knows the educated, working middle class is the PTI’s core support group. That too cost us, at least, two to three seats.
But, relatively, the Islamabad results are much better. That is something that the PTI acknowledges, something that the media, too, has acknowledged. We have won 60 per cent of the urban seats. As for the rest of Pakistan, Islamabad has come out as an aberration. LG elections are the sitting government’s elections: the PTI has won in KPK, PPP in interior Sindh, MQM in Karachi, and in Punjab… It would be incorrect to judge popularity on the basis of it.
As for the importance, democracy is incomplete without local body elections. A 180 million population represented by 273 MNAs and around 800 MPAs – it’s mathematically unworkable. Secondly, our service-delivery institutions have collapsed so you cannot even expect purpose-built institution to deliver. You need representatives at the grassroots level.
If you are using politics to increase your property and empower your family, then you’d want to keep power centralized. But if you’re doing it to improve people’s lives, then you have to distribute the authority, you have to take it down to the grassroots. You have to mend the alleys, the parks, the dispensaries, and the teaching system. You have to establish libraries, you have to provide clean drinking water. Local representatives should be empowered with the authority and the resources to mend all this.
7. If PTI manages a majority at the Centre in the coming years, what major difference would it make for Pakistan?
AU: Why do you say ‘if’? It’s not a question of ‘if’, it’s a question of ‘when’. You see, the basic difference from which all other follow is this: Presently, a few families are governing the entire state and distributing the gains among themselves. We have to replace that with a Pakistan where all 180 million people are in control. We have to devolve power and take politics out of institutions and service-delivery systems.
8. Being a business expert, how do you see CPEC improving Pakistan’s economy and internal situation?
AU: CPEC is a positive development. It is a good thing and must garner everyone’s support. But what CPEC is exactly, we still haven’t figured out. Today’s Dawn editorial mentions a statement by Governor State Bank that there is no transparency in the project, no one knows what is going on. That is exactly what I have been saying… The parliamentary oversight committee was established on our call, I represent the PTI in it – I and Senator Shibli Faraz. I put forth six questions in the last committee and called for a follow-up this morning. The meeting was on November 18, it has been more than three weeks. Utter plain questions, the same that the Govenor State Bank is now asking.
The primary difference is that power projects in Pakistan were financed by the West, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank… now they are being financed by China because the West is running out of savings and the cash surplus rests with China. So that’s not a dramatic difference but it’s a good thing.
9. If you had to give one message to the youth of Pakistan, what would that be?
AU: The Pakistani youth is way more vigilant. I should be taking their opinion instead. What can I say? My knowledge has become redundant. Again, to quote Allama Iqbal, Khirad ko ghulami se aazad kar, Jawano(n) ko peero(n) ka ustaad kar (- let intellect be free from slavery, let the young guide the old). So the time has come. The youth will advise us now.
I believe in Pakistan, I’ve always believed in Pakistan. I’ve been rewarded by Pakistan, tremendously. So, believe in Pakistan, make your contribution the best way you can – whatever drives your passion. And, in sha Allah (God willing) the country will one day become the country that Jinnah envisioned it to be.
Video Credits: Nida Abbasi
Write-up Credits: Naima Shahab