Manifestations of raw power – Faisal Bari

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A LOT of vehicles across Pakistan, particularly in Islamabad and other larger cities, have number plates that are different from the majority as a reminder of the position of distinction that the owners or users hold. These number plates can be institutional (armed forces have separate number plates; green plates denote officialdom; there are special plates for the UN and diplomats as there are for the judiciary), or used by individuals (special number plates or stickers are used to announce that the owner is a journalist, lawyer, MPA, MNA, senator or a union/district council member). Why do we have so many identifiers?

These are announcements of power. These are signals, in this power and patron-client society, of one’s social standing. Rich private citizens who do not have any identifiers of the sort described above signal their status through the size or type of car they have or through the number of private guards/ escorts hired for the vehicle. The objective is the same.

There is no single power/ money/ privilege hierarchy in the country. Power and money can sometimes be at cross purposes as well, but hierarchy is very much entrenched. And it is present in probably all societies. What is peculiar about Pakistan, though, is how there is so much effort to make power visible. Why do journalists, lawyers or senators need to announce their profession or affiliation through their vehicles? Clearly, it is a signal of some value and there is benefit to it or people would not do it. The benefit might be in terms of public recognition or adulation and admiration or they might think that they would be able to get away with what others might be penalised for, such as traffic infractions.

The hierarchy is also clear when one does not mention one’s profession or affiliation. For instance, I have never come across a car or motorcycle that says ‘teacher’ on it. The same is now true for doctors. Lawyers and journalists take the cake in terms of the professional affiliations that I see on vehicles.

People feel that access to services, the treatment they receive in society and even the way interaction with other members of society is structured and carried out are dependent on revealing one’s power and privilege. The more power and privilege you have or you can signal, the better will be the treatment you are accorded and the easier life will be for you. Even the right to be treated with dignity and to be given rights that are due to all citizens cannot be taken for granted. You have to say or signal clearly who you are before interaction can start. And the degree and level of response you get depends on what you are able to signal and how. What a broken society we live in!

And if there is mixed signalling, or if a person thinks that he or she is not being accorded treatment in keeping with their position or privilege, the first sentence is usually ‘don’t you know who I am?’. Things can deteriorate very fast from there. We have seen many such examples even in the recent past through videos (ie the colonel’s wife, the general’s son, police officers, military officers, lawyers … you name it) posted on social media.

I used to travel on Daewoo twice or thrice a week some years back. As soon as we would be seated the person sitting next to me would ask what I did. If I said I was an economist teaching at a university, I would get a very different response than if I simply said I was a teacher. And an Urdu-speaking teacher was the worst: I would be treated to very little conversation after that for the rest of the journey. One gentleman even went to the extent of moving to another seat. With the English-speaking economist teaching at a university, a lot of people were keen to have a conversation on almost everything one could think of. I remember one gentleman was very keen to discuss what he should do with his dollar-based savings.

Is the competition for resources keener in Pakistan than it is in the ‘developed’ countries? Is it this fight for scarce resources that is leading to this need for power and signalling? Is this the only way to ensure access, to the extent possible? But there is competition in other societies too. There is scarcity in other societies as well. And yet, not all of them have the same level of such visible signalling and the obvious need to resort to it in order to secure access to basic services, basic rights or even basic level of treatment as a human being.

Is it how institutions have been built and how they have been allowed to function in Pakistan that is determining the outcome? Institutions and organisations are dependent on patrons: this is as true of the larger institutions as it is of smaller ones. Even the largest of our institutions gets identified with the leader of the institution and he or she tends to have a significant impact on not only the priorities of the institution but also on some of its more set rules and norms.

Access and treatment are determined by who you are, who you know and what sort of power and influence you command. Even in the smallest matter, power plays a role. There are buildings and clubs in the country that still have boards announcing that drivers and maids are not allowed to enter lifts or shops. This debasing of humanity cannot be due only to competition or institutional degradation. In fact, it must have other roots or reasons that drive it to contribute to further degradation.

Why are power, influence and wealth so important in our country? Are there good explanations for it out there? And, it is fine to interpret the world but the point is to change it. How do we move towards challenging and changing this equilibrium?