Imagine you are all alone, wandering the streets of a strange city without any money or means of communication. Perhaps you have been mugged or separated from your possessions and companions through sheer bad luck. Tired and hungry, and desperate for succour wherever you can find it, research suggests that the last thing you should do is approach someone who is wealthy. Time and again, social psychologists and sociologists have demonstrated that the rich and powerful often lack empathy and compassion; paradoxically enough, those who are often best placed to extend material assistance are the least likely to do so. Instead, in the hypothetical scenario described above, seeking the aid of the less privileged is more likely to yield sympathy, understanding, and assistance.

There are many reasons why the rich tend to display so much indifference to the plight of others. For one, those who possess power, wealth, and status can usually use these resources to easily achieve their objectives and pursue their interests. Money becomes the primary medium through which the rich solve their problems, contrasting with the poor and less well-off who often have to rely on the goodwill and cooperation of their peers – family, neighbours, and colleagues – to get things done. It is the absence of reliance on others, and the social interaction this breeds, that constitutes one explanation for the lack of empathy displayed by the rich. Another possible explanation is that the rich simply take their privilege for granted, placing less value on the material and social resources they possess while demonstrating escalating levels of entitlement. Those with less money and power are more likely to place a premium on the scarce resources they have, with this also extending to the inter-personal relationships that underpin their support networks. Similarly, the fact is that the rich often inhabit spaces and places that are far removed from the everyday difficulties and struggles that most people have to deal with. In their large, beautiful homes, their air-conditioned malls, and VIP lounges, they have little exposure to, and appreciation for, the reality of existence for the majority. Finally, it could also be argued that the process through which people become rich is one that sometimes encourages attitudes of selfishness, greed, and cut-throat ruthlessness that contribute towards a more general absence of concern for the feelings of others.

All of this is important because it gives us insight into why, earlier this week, a ten month old child died because the presence of Bilawal Bhutto in Karachi’s Civil Hospital prevented her parents from entering the hospital and getting the timely medical attention that might have saved her life. Apparently, the VIP protocol given to Bilawal Bhutto, which involved heavy levels of security, meant that some entrances to the hospital were barred to members of the public. In the days since this happened, Mr. Bhutto and the PPP have been rightly castigated for their total lack of concern for the well-being and welfare of this country’s citizens. In what would undoubtedly qualify as one of the most insensitive statements to ever be issued by a leading politician, PPP leader Nisar Khuhro made matters worse by insisting that Mr. Bhutto’s security was more important than any ‘collateral damage’.

In the wake of the opprobrium directed towards the party since the tragedy occurred, the PPP has apparently called for an inquiry into what happened. As is generally the case with such inquiries in the Land of the Pure, no action will actually be taken to provide the bereaved family with justice, or to prevent such tragedies from taking place in the future. No heads will roll, no resignations will be offered, and no apologies will be made.

Understanding why the privileged elite can act with such callousness is not intended to excuse their behaviour or defend the indefensible.

Instead, it provides us with a simultaneously frightening and fascinating window into the minds of the people who have come to control the levers of power in this country. It should come as no surprise that people who have no experience of hardship should fail to see how it blights the lives of millions of citizens every day. This is precisely why it is so important to constantly build and improve institutions that can hold the powerful accountable, and why it will always ultimately be the people and popular struggle that will accomplish this objective. Left to their own devices, the elite will always do what they can to safeguard and protect their own sectional interests, even if that comes at the expense of everyone else.

Everyday, on the streets and roads of Pakistan, as the cavalcades of the powerful hurtle across this country’s cities, the message they are sending with their security guards, jeeps, and police escorts is clear; their time is more valuable than anyone else’s, and they are more important than anyone else. It is also a symoblic exercise in the projection of power, showing their rivals and average citizens that those with wealth and influence can essentially do as they please; the rules that apply to everyone else do not apply to them, whether this means bludgeoning their way through rush hour traffic, getting preferential access to public services and spaces, or even employing violence to discipline and punish all who stand in their way. This is precisely why even the most minor state and political party functionaries proudly proclaim their status and position on their illegal green number plates, with designations like ‘Councillor’ or ‘PML-N Youth Wing’ being used to magnify the small amounts of authority they have through association with more powerful networks and institutions.

In addition to all the rule-breaking, arrogance, entitlement, and abuse of power, what is perhaps most disturbing about all of this is the pettiness. After all, more than anything else, VIP and VVIP protocol shows just how limited the ambitions and horizons of Pakistan’s elite actually are. Blessed with tremendous amounts of wealth and power, and placed in positions where they could accomplish so much (for good and for ill), they are instead content to simply sit and bask in the artificial sense of importance generated by being surrounded by dozens of vehicles, armed men, and simpering sycophants. If nothing else, this demonstrates what happens when people possessing minds utterly devoid of imagination are given authority far in excess of their intelligence. In the final analysis, power in Pakistan stands reduced to being little more than playground-level machismo, with men drunk on self-importance standing around and bragging about the size of their convoys.