Manmohan Singh and his brother!
The News, August 24, 2006
There was an astonishing piece of news recently from India. No, the small news item, buried within the inner columns of most newspapers, did not concern miraculously sweetened sea water, or any other such event. The item reported on the fact that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's brother had arrived at his official residence in a smoke-belching New Delhi rickshaw, and unassumingly told security men on duty at the gates that he wished to see his brother.
Still more bizarrely, at least for those of us living in Pakistan, after being informed, the prime minister himself had rushed down to the gates barefoot, greeted his brother warmly and rather than dismissing or at least berating the security staff, apologised to them for failing to inform them of the guest's expected arrival.
It later transpired that Mr Manmohan Singh had forgotten to send a car to collect his brother from the rail station, where he had arrived on board a regular train, alongside hundreds of other citizens of the Indian Republic.
Even more than the case of the water that lost its brine, the events of that half-hour in Delhi are in their own way astounding, contrasting markedly with those that so often unfold in Pakistan. Here, news of ministers beating up government officials who in any way challenge them, slapping waiters for delaying dinner, or demanding that all traffic be suspended on any road they pass along is now nothing out of the ordinary.
Over the past years, reports of new limousines for members of provincial governments, of assembly speakers constructing villas of extraordinary extravagance and abominable taste, or of others with wealth and influence flying in a range of items from bathroom fittings to catered dinners from Dubai or even Paris have become increasingly routine.
Many who represent the people of Pakistan see it as below their dignity to stand in any kind of queue, and expect to be whisked aboard planes, escorted past queues and have luggage carried by minions. Messages stamped on PIA tickets, at least till the recent past, offered MNAs and ministers special privileges, openly separating them from the apparently meaningless mass of humanity that is made up by the citizens of Pakistan.
Many in power expect the same treatment to be extended to a variety of relatives, and of course, the incident in which a minister's son pummelled to the ground a fellow PIA passenger who suggested his baggage should also be checked remains fresh in the memories of the staff on duty who attempted to tackle it, and in turn were met with further hostility.
The now almost clichéd images of the stodgy Ambassador cars that till recently transported Indian leaders, the simplicity of official receptions and the fact that, till new security restrictions imposed their own codes of conduct, some parliamentarians, walked, cycled or took rickshaws to the assembly, have of course long contrasted with the modus operandi employed by all VIPS, real or self-created, in Pakistan.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's low-key phone calls to Pakistanis whose rooms were raided by New Delhi police falls within the same category. In Islamabad, it may of course take a long time to realise that such gestures raise, rather than lower, the status and image of men in power.
But there are other factors too to consider. In a new age of consumerism, when television advertising dominates content on most channels, this obsession with opulence has inevitable seeped far lower down into Pakistani society and ignited new and dangerous fires.
The effects of this are troubling. In at least three incidents reported during the past year, victims have been shot dead simply for the sake of their mobile phones. The obsession with such symbols of affluence has led to cars being broken into or offices being ransacked.
A drive through almost any city or town in the country will too demonstrate the love for opulence, and the desire to display it as openly as possible. The surreal designs of many homes, exhibiting an apparently deep-rooted need to display as many White House-style columns, different kinds of marble and embellishments of other kinds is openly evident. And of course, the almost obscene expenditures on so many weddings, the increasingly innovative ways being found to exhibit how much wealth has been used up and the open competition to spend more than others is today firmly entrenched.
Recently, as children who had successfully passed their matriculation exams lined up outside colleges to collect admission forms, the wish-lists they put forward reflected on the kind of attitudes that have come to prevail. While a determination for self-improvement and success is obviously praiseworthy, the form it so often took among these 16-year-olds was less commendable.
Many listed a desire to own large cars, giant television sets, or to go abroad so they could acquire these items, as their primary priorities in life. They saw education as tools to acquiring the kind of life-style they sought. And while of course, there were also those whose focus remained on attaining professional excellence or greater academic success, the extent to which the desire to accumulate luxuries existed was in itself an education in how consumerism today rules minds.
The outcome of this is the increasingly unstable society being created. As consumerism expands at an immensely rapid pace, the wealth gap widens, creating a bigger and bigger gulf between people. Coupled with this is the lack of opportunity available to most in the country -- with the glaring differences in the quality of schools, the demise of the public-sector system and the many hurdles in the way of any climb up the economic and social ladder holding back tens of thousands of young women and men with tremendous potential and considerable intellectual power.
The perceptions of injustice, of discrimination, of anger that such people face are also now out in the open. They manifest themselves in different ways, whenever the chance arises. The aggressive hammering by young motorcyclists on the windows or roofs of cars as they race past them on August 14, the jeers and taunts directed towards car owners, are, however distasteful, somehow a part of this psyche; a means to strike back against deprivation imposed by an unfair social system.
More direct demonstrations of this anger have come during episodes such as the riots that took place in Lahore in February, when young men, masquerading as religious extremists, ransacked shops, restaurants and other symbols of opulence in a society increasingly fractured along the static lines of class and affluence, as well as on the basis of religion, ethnicity and gender.
All these are of course signs of danger. The obscenity of a society in which the very rich nibble on food flown in from other continents while the very poor quite literally starve, where demonstrations of sycophancy are of supreme importance to bragging rulers, cannot persist forever. Somewhere in the future, widespread violence spurred on by rage may not lie that far away, and in a system where access to justice is increasingly denied, where the rule of law has broken down and where a deep-rooted sense of unfair play prevails, there is no telling quite what form this surge of anger may take.