In recent weeks, a number of observers in the media have pointed towards the proliferation in Lahore of red number plates inscribed with the Arabic words ‘Al-Bakistan’ and ‘Al-Bunjab’. While this trend has been taken to be indicative of the extent to which identity in Pakistan is now imbricated with Middle Eastern variants of Islam, it has also been pointed out that the practice of using such number plates is illegal. However, inasmuch as cars displaying red number plates are breaking the law, it can be seen that similar practices are undertaken by another segment of the population comprised of individuals who make use of their number plates to proclaim and assert their identity. Indeed, it has become commonplace to see cars hurtling down the roads of Pakistan, flagrantly violating traffic rules while brandishing black and green number plates emblazoned with the letters ‘MNA’ or ‘MPA’.

It is important to clarify here that these vehicles are not officially sanctioned government cars which would, at any rate, have number plates that are entirely green. Instead, these are privately owned cars belonging to politically influential individuals. What is clear from these displays is that by flaunting their political position and power on their number plates, Pakistan’s politicians essentially seek to separate themselves from the rest of society, signifying both their immunity from the law, as well as their difference from the ‘ordinary’ people plying the country’s roads. It is a symbolic exercise of power, informing all and sundry in the event of any altercation or dispute with the occupants of the vehicle in question, they would essentially be inviting the wrath of powerful individuals backed by the coercive power of their private wealth and public position. At a time when traffic wardens are routinely beaten by the sons of Parliamentary Secretaries (and, curiously enough cricketers), these number plates carry within themselves the promise of violence, warning off those foolish enough to dare confronting the occupants of these vehicles.

Of late, the invariably expensive vehicles bearing green and black number plates have also come to be associated with another, regrettably frequent sight on Pakistan’s roads; the black pickup truck or jeep full of armed guards. In addition to the escort vehicles that are part of the ‘protocol’ apparently extended to even the most minor state functionary, it is fast becoming the norm for the rich and powerful to travel with such entourages. Some even go further by including flashing lights and sirens in their private vehicles. Once again, the presence of these visible symbols of power provides the elite with the means through which to flaunt the rules and regulations that they clearly believe are designed for lesser mortals. As they plough through traffic, heedlessly endangering other motorists and pedestrians while blaring their horns and waving their guns, these motorcades essentially demonstrate the contempt in which they hold those not fortunate enough to be part of the political and economic establishment.

When attempting to explain the political elite’s predilection for displaying the trappings of power in this fashion, it is possible to arrive at a few tentative conclusions. For one, it could be argued that these number plates and armed entourages are reflective of a sense of entitlement; since the colonial period, public office and state institutions in this part of the world have been associated with the pursuit of private gain. The extension of limited representative government in India (and particularly in Punjab) during the colonial era was done with the express purpose of reinforcing the power of the local elites who formed the core of indigenous British support in these areas. Through their incorporation within the formal apparatuses of the state, these elites acquired resources for themselves, and disbursed patronage amongst their supporters. This practice continued after independence in Pakistan as these entrenched elites took advantage of their political power to reproduce both their economic position and the patronage-based politics that underpinned their authority. When Abdul Qayyum Khan Jatoi, erstwhile Federal Minister of Defence Production under the PPP government, claimed that his party had a ‘right’ to corruption in a television programme in 2010, he was simply stating the truth; politics in Pakistan has rarely, if ever, been about public service. Instead, it has served to institutionalize the rent-seeking behavior of the powerful. In a context where the political elite treat the state like their personal fiefdom, existing for no other reason than to further their own interests, it is unsurprising to see them enact this principle on the roads of Pakistan.

It is also interesting to see how the phenomenon of the green and black number plate has slowly spread beyond elected members of parliament. In addition to ‘MNA’, ‘MPA’, and ‘Senator’, many vehicles now bear plates announcing membership within other organized bodies, ranging from the youth wings of different political parties, to bureaucratic departments and other entities affiliated with the government. In these instances, the plates in question serve functions that are similar to those described above; proximity to political power provides individuals with the means through which to call upon the power of the state, and this is conveyed through the medium of number plates.

The picture becomes a bit more complicated, however, when seeing how this trend has been emulated by two other sections of society, namely the media and the legal community. Increasingly, it is possible to see green and black plates saying ‘Advocate’ or ‘Press’, implying that membership within these two groups brings with it the same kind of official status that is associated with formal state power. One explanation for this lies in the events of the past decade; the Lawyers’ Movement, as well as the repression of the media by the Musharraf government, had the effect of politicizing lawyers and media personnel, leading them to make use of their corporate identities as a basis upon which to engage with the state. Following from this, given the increasing (and not always positive) exercise of power by these two groups, both to pursue their own interests and to target rival groups, it is possible to see how green and black number plates could be used by members of these groups to intimidate potential opponents on the road.

Pakistan’s blatantly illegal and increasingly common green and black number plates are representative of some of the worst tendencies of the political and economic elite, reflecting both their contempt for the rule of law and their overblown sense of entitlement. To the extent that these number plates represent the damage caused by the fusion of public and private power in Pakistan, they serve as small, rectangular reminders of the very large institutional problems this country continues to face.

n    The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.