Ordinary Pakistanis have long been annoyed at motorcades that hold up traffic for well-connected elites, and of street barricades that lead to politicians’ residences. But anger at what is dubbed the “VIP culture” in Pakistan may be reaching a tipping point.
Last month, a video that showed passengers blocking legislators from boarding a Pakistan International Airlines flight went viral. The plane had been delayed to accommodate the late VIPs. This rare example of push back drew widespread TV coverage and debate about class divisions and poor governance.
Anger over Pakistan’s VIP culture is mainly about governance, says Ayesha Tammy Haq, a Karachi-based lawyer who hosts a political talk show. “If you had a good governance system and provided services, people wouldn’t mind waiting,” she says.
Basic sanitation and utilities are lacking in major cities like Karachi, and the educational and healthcare system are in a deplorable state. Reforms in these areas aren’t forthcoming, and the general state of insecurity contributes to a lack of faith in the government to enact any reforms.
After the airline video hit TV and exploded on Twitter and Facebook the man who filmed it, Arjumand Hussain, was fired from his job at an aviation and travel services company – which got him lionized online. (Mr. Hussian's company later claimed it did not fire him for shooting the video).
The video shows Rehman Malik, a senator and former cabinet minister, walking towards the airplane door – only to make a hasty retreat when he sees the angry passengers waiting for him to get on board.
“You should go back. You should apologize to these passengers,” yells an unidentified man in the video. “You should be ashamed of yourself… 250 passengers have had their time wasted because of you. It is your fault. You are not a minister anymore and even if you are a minister, we don’t care anymore!”
Such confrontations are rare. When Mr. Malik was interior minister in the last Pakistan Peoples Party-led government, he was often satirized on television and provided fodder for online jokes. He once compared militants who attacked a Navy base to Star Wars characters. But politicians here are not usually on the receiving end of a diatribe like the one on board the PIA flight.
A PIA spokesperson said an investigation had been opened into the incident, and added that PIA flights are not delayed on the request of government officials – though anyone that has flown in South Asia knows that flights often do await the arrival of single passengers.
Yet, many of those complaining about Malik seem to have ignored other signs of apparent discrimination in Pakistan. After the video emerged online, Pakistani author and journalist Mohammed Hanif pointed out that those riled up are overlooking the fact that they, too, are better off than many who live in rural or poor areas. He tweeted: “People demanding end to VIP culture at airports are right. It also seems they haven't seen much of Pakistan beyond airports.”
In Karachi, malls and restaurants practice exclusionary measures such as limiting the entrance of single men over the weekend. Last year, reports emerged of a French restaurant in Islamabad that would not admit Pakistanis unless they were accompanied by foreigners. On New Year’s, the government closes off Karachi’s public beach and blocks routes leading to it with shipping containers so celebrators can't access the waterfront.
The anger at this VIP culture points to a very real problem in Pakistan: the vast differences between social classes.
Pakistan’s elite is estimated at 10 million people – 6.4 per cent of its population – including 600,000 described as the most "privileged" in a study by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. Compared to this, at least one-third of Pakistan’s population – an estimated 58.7 million people – live below the United Nations’ poverty line of $1.25 per day.
Maintaining elite privileges often comes at the cost of protecting ordinary citizens. For example, a wall built outside former President Asif Ali Zardari’s house in Karachi’s Clifton area inconveniences hundreds of people living nearby because a main road was downsized for the wall. Security personnel have been known to question residents about their visitors, and commercial activity in the neighborhood has been affected.
With over 30 percent of Karachi’s police force on "VIP duty" – deployed at the residences of politicians and government officials – the city is left without a fully functioning police force.
Much of the VIP culture has been created because of the state of insecurity in Pakistan: there are scores of politicians who have been threatened by militants and rely on the government to provide them with some form of protection. But others say that the government should be doing more to serve all Pakistanis, such as ensuring that the police to citizen ratio is higher.
“I think it’s time for people to stand up for their rights,” said Frieha Altaf, who runs an event management company in Karachi. She said more people needed to call out VIPs publicly for their behavior, like when they block off roads. She likened VIP culture to that of gangsters because of the high-handed nature and sense of impunity that both have in Pakistan. “Rehman Malik should have apologized,” she says.
While it is unlikely that Malik’s public humiliation will deter others from throwing their weight around or holding up traffic, he may have learned a lesson from the video.
Ms. Haq recalled catching a flight to Islamabad a week after the video featuring the legislators emerged. “Everyone got up when they announced boarding. Malik was among them – and he was very good natured, allowing people to take selfies with him and smiling,” she said.
“There were other members of the National Assembly and Senators and they were on time too. I think people felt that [the video] had made a difference.”