Of pranks, politics and power

Let the occasional shoe fly, and give politicians a taste of their own medicine

A politician’s struggle is for the people. But the prominent politicians in Pakistan today have very little in common with the common man. They live extraordinary lives, cushioned by endless wealth from which steams immeasurable power. The obstacles they encounter everyday are very far from the ordinary struggles faced by the common man, struggles that include lack of clean drinking water, unaffordable electricity bills, mounting vegetable prices and the like.

According to the Economic Survey report 2016-17, an average Pakistani’s annual income is roughly $1629, that is approximately a little over fifteen thousand rupees a month. The visible spending of Pakistan’s most popular politicians is at the very least, several times this amount. And records of tax returns filed by these individuals are not needed to draw this conclusion. The colossal residences, pricey international educations, lavish dressing, foreign medical treatments, multiple vacations across the globe, everyday travel via cavalcades of expensive cars, are all clear indicators of their monetary standing.

Benjamin Disraeli, who twice served as Britain’s Prime Minister, once said: ‘Money is power and rare are the heads that can withstand the possession of great power.’ With their immeasurable wealth, behind closed doors, our politicians exercise unsanctioned authority, stories of which are told through vague words in hushed circles. One small example on record is a statement made by former President Asif Ali Zaradri, during an interview with journalist Hamid Mir. Answering a question, the PPP co-chairman stated in Urdu: ‘Chairman NAB has no standing. He wouldn’t dare to make cases against me.’If the head of a state institution can be publicly rendered impotent by a politician, one can only imagine the shenanigans which occur behind closed doors.

How powerful was the three-time former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, quaking before a mere shoe? How influential was the Foreign Minister with ink dripping off his face?

These manoeuvres for personal gain must end. The people cannot and must not stay silent if these politicians continue to fill their own sacks with gold. But how shall an ordinary individual talk back to such unregulated power without facing dire consequences?

Historically, in times of political repression, humour has proven to be a useful tool. Poets, playwrights and actors across the world still use humour to temporarily revoke power structures governing society. And the common man in Pakistan has now joined this band of rebels armed with shoes, ink and eggs. Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif’s face was splattered with ink. Ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was hit with a shoe, while PTI Chairman Imran Khan dodged the ones aimed at him twice. Recently MNA Ayesha Gulalai was showered with eggs. But are these incidents simply unpleasant politics? Or can they been seen as something more?

These shoe-ink-egg throwing men and women are ordinary individuals, talking back to unfettered power. Their pranks are an act of resistance. Reverend Al of the Cacophany Society Pranking group writes: ‘Pranks are not like revenge. They don’t punish, they provoke.’ Thus the spectators standing by are momentarily disillusioned as the politician is stripped of power. The public is compelled to recognise the politician in their most primitive form, as simply a vulnerable individual. While pranks should not be considered a better alternative to traditional modes of civic engagements, they should not be completely shunned either. Yes, pranks are disrespectful, but because that is how they disrupt, disclose and disarm the mighty. Pranksters reverse power binaries — albeit temporarily — and their pranks have been recognised as instruments for political change throughout the world.

One example is the Biotic Baking Brigade. The BBB define themselves as a group of activists with a mission to publicly deliver pies to ‘pompous people’. One of their most famous acts was smashing a coconut cream pie onto the face of renowned economist Milton Friedman. Mr. Friedman is known as the father of neo-liberal economics, which the BBB believe has led to the growth of multi-national corporations and hence greater disparity across earth. BBB’s Rahula Janowski claimed the ‘pie is an example that you don’t have to revere someone just because they are more powerful than you…pie is the great equaliser… how wealthy and powerful are you with pie dripping off your face?’

Similarly, how powerful was the three time former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif quaking before a mere shoe? How influential was the Foreign Minister with ink dripping off his face?  In these instances, our politicians were transformed into common men. The prank is at once so monumental that it gains immense media coverage, yet so trivial that the target is unable to retaliate without losing a few points in the public eye. The prank is the ordinary citizen’s warning to the politicians, that we too can be powerful. So let there be foolery. Let there be eggs and pies. Let the occasional shoe fly, and give politicians a taste of their own medicine.

The writer has a master’s in media with a distinction from the London School of Economics. She tweets @mawish_m

Published in Daily Times, March 26th 2018.