BORROWING from the example that Kaushik Basu uses in one of his books: imagine that the mother of the prime minister applies for an electricity or gas connection. Imagine that she is told to wait for a few months till it is her turn to get the connection. If the prime minister decides that he or she should not intervene and lets the matter proceed in the way it is supposed to, without strings being pulled, how would our society view him or her?

A lot of people will think that the prime minister is weak and ineffective: if his/her mother cannot be helped, then how can I be helped? And how can the prime minister govern effectively and make tough decisions?

Power is usually defined in relation to someone ie power over someone. It can be persuasive or coercive or both. But there is another way of thinking about power. It is about the ability to defy rules, norms and laws, the ability to not only get away with it but to also signal one’s level of ‘power’. So, defiance is not shown in private or while hiding from the law and society. It is shown, most often, in public with the intention of expressing one’s power and ensuring that all and sundry can see it.

Do we need a convoy of 30 to 40 cars when our prime minister or his family members move in public space? Is it all a security requirement? A few cars might be. But 30 odd cars? Surely not. They are actually a show of power to impress all.

Not only do they defy the rules, they think it is the right thing to do as well.

Do police cars, whether or not on official duty, have to defy the traffic rules? Again, clearly not. They are not supposed to do that except in an emergency. But, more often than not, you will see police department cars defying traffic laws. And not only do they defy the rules, they think it is the right thing to do as well as they are members of law enforcement. Reminds one of the dialogue from Judge Dredd: “I never broke the law. I am the law!”

Even institutions have started behaving in this manner in Pakistan. Laws are being drawn up in ways that can be used to show the power of the institution rather than to regulate an area effectively or facilitate certain legitimate activities of citizens.

People who have registered not-for-profit companies under the Companies Act have been asked to have the registration renewed every five years. One wonders why this is needed and why it applies only to not-for-profits, but so be it: the state feels it needs to re-verify everything about a company from scratch every five years even though they get quarterly and yearly updates from each company, but, again, so be it.

What, in fact, might be of more interest is that the Security Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP), the regulator of the corporate sector, requires the interior ministry to give clearance before it can renew the registration of a not-for-profit firm. This has clearly been done with security and control purposes in mind.

And what is even more interesting is that SECP has not imposed, and clearly does not feel it can impose, any timeline on the clearance process from the interior ministry. So, one hears of firms that applied for the renewal of registration a couple of years ago but that are still waiting to hear back from the SECP. In some cases, the SECP has told firms in writing that their clearance is pending with the interior ministry and until they hear back from the latter, they cannot move the case forward. Informally, SECP officials have even told firms that if they have connections in the interior ministry and can get the go-ahead, they should do that.

What sort of a regulatory structure is this? Is all this necessary for security? Or is it about control? And even here is the structure efficient? By not having timelines, the door is opened for arbitrariness. And by allowing the ‘connected’ to get away with so much, power is being exercised by them, indeed, the pursuit of power itself, is being encouraged.

At a different level, and with different and much more serious consequences for individuals and families, the issue of ‘disappearances’ is also related to the exercise of power in terms of flouting the laws and impunity. People disappear; every individual in Pakistan knows that it is the law-enforcement agencies that are behind a lot of the disappearances, but there is nothing that anyone can do about it. The courts cannot do much. The political setup does not want to do anything; in any case, it, probably, can’t do much. This is power in its most naked and fearsome form: the ability to make a person disappear beyond the reach of the law, and with no recourse for redressing the situation. A true claim to absolute power — the kind of power that, in some societies, is only attributed to divinity or nature.

Children, when they want to impress parents with their increasing prowess, will drive a toy car or cycle with their hands in the air instead of being on the handles or the steering wheel and shout ‘look Mummy, no hands’. The way we use the concept of power in Pakistan seems similar. We only believe that a person or institution has power if he/it can break the laws or flout the rules and get away with doing so. And the ‘no hands’ part has to do with being able to violate the rules publicly. If democracy, the rule of law and institutions are going to evolve in the right direction in Pakistan, our notions of power and its exercise will have to undergo a radical change as well.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives and an associate professor of economics at Lums, Lahore.

Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2017



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