The Dawn: Jan 9, 2015

Punjab Notes: Punjab’s elite: display of power

Mushtaq Soofi 

Each and every member of Punjab’s elite invariably wants to look different in a society in which looking different has traditionally been considered the sign of being a stranger. And stranger surely he is among his own people. Apart from his different appearance this stranger has altogether different way of thinking.

If you are compelled by circumstances to argue with him on any issue, in response to your argument he would say; ‘do you know better than me’? If you dare to push the argument further, the reply would be; ‘don’t you know who m I’? And if you are stupid enough to take your argument to the logical conclusion don’t be surprised when he shouts, ‘what the hell can you do to me’. Arguing with a member of this class is a dangerous exercise in futility because you will be taken as someone looking for trouble. Beware; he knows how to deal with trouble as he has the power to create a bigger trouble for you.

Power is not enough. Display of power in the context of Punjab is more important than its possession. Power not flaunted is power rendered impotent. To understand how the phenomenon of power unaccompanied by its public display has come to be equated with lack of power, we need someone like Thorstein Veblen (an unusual American economist famous for his ‘The Theory of the Leisure Class’) who had the uncanny ability to discover in trivia the pointers of a buried anthropological reality. It was Veblen who discovered in the walking stick of rich man the shadow of a weapon: ‘the handling of so tangible and primitive a means of offence is very comforting to anyone who is gifted with even a moderate share of ferocity’. He saw in things a reality concealed behind their facades and hence described philanthropy as ‘pragmatic romance’, big ecclesiastical organisations as ‘chain stores’ and individual church as ‘retail outlet’. What he would make of our elite’s symbols of power display?

American society of his times was as savage as that of the Punjab today. The traditional economists in the 19th century America declared that every person was entitled to ‘enjoy the products of his exertion to the exclusion of everybody else—’.

The products of exertion as everybody knows now were in fact the result of a pulsating world of unabashed manipulations where in the words of Robert L. Heilbroner “the fantastic game of monetary cutthroat was described as the process of ‘thrift and accumulation’; the outright fraud as ‘enterprise’; the gilded extravagances of the age as ‘consumption’”.

Let us take some of the power symbols of the Punjab’s elite; houses and vehicles. They build their apparently modern houses spread over acres which look like feudal mansions or fortresses of tribal chiefs of yester years. High boundary walls reinforced with barbed wires manned by security guards with latest automatic weapons create the scary ambiance of the age of warlords. Inordinately large, fully furnished rooms after rooms rarely used but dusted daily harbor the eerie silence of human absence. It’s like ordering food for hundreds of guests and eating alone. The whole idea of house is an anthropological retrogression. With advance of urban culture and growing population there is a realisation that a room unused or under-used is an economic folly and any bedroom larger than 20×20 is beyond the ambit of human proportions.

But our elite’s architectural monstrosity is a visual declaration of its politico-economic power to the people who live in the words of Friedrich Engels ‘packed in like the paving-stones in the streets’. These houses are modern Bastilles. When the people will march is just a question of time.

Elite’s obsessive love of big luxury vehicles, especially of four-wheel type is an image with unambiguous socio-political message ubiquitously moving on the roads where public transport is a mirage to say the least. The People anxious to reach their work places must wait in heat and cold for a contraption called bus which like Godot of Becket refuses to appear. The elite ride steely power not vehicle. That is why what they ride can’t be stopped even by a cop for violating traffic rules as the rules are meant to be broken to show that those who make the rules have the muscle to break them. A decent car is far more comfortable than the costliest four-wheel land cruiser. But sending the message ‘don’t you know who am I’ to the public is more important than being comfortable in a world driven by savage instinct.

Why the Punjab’s elite need to employ the gargantuan symbols to express egregious display of power? Perhaps the power they have is not legitimately acquired. They have to constantly reassure themselves that they do wield the power by emitting signs however vulgar they may be. Secondly the people who know the nature of illegitimately acquired power of the elite have to be bombarded with signs and symbols of power so that socio-cultural conditions are created which make it possible for the people to acquiesce to accept them as their leaders. The concern for the legitimacy can force the leaders to share the woes of the people but those who appropriate the role of leading by exploiting the woes of the people thrive on the illegitimacy. —

Back to Mushtaq Soofi's  Page

Back to Column's Page