Power and its discontent

Power is fickle; power is short-lived, but those in its thrall often forget that it would not last forever

Farrukh Khan Pitafi March 30, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Follow his WhatsApp channel ‘Farrukh K Pitafi’ for the latest updates


Netflix’s rendition of Cixin Liu’s brilliant work, 3 Body Problem, just dropped. It is as good as it gets. If you haven’t read the novel, I strongly suggest that you do so.

The series opens with a struggle session during the Cultural Revolution, where a physics professor is being publicly tried for teaching “reactionary theories” like relativity and the Big Bang theory. The scene is almost identical to the book’s version except that instead of a tall and heavy iron hat, the professor is wearing a tall conical hat made of paper. After a brief inquisition, the 15-year-old revolutionary guard loses her patience and hits the professor with a belt. Others join in, and the professor is dead in no time. The professor’s helpless daughter watches with horror as she is held back by the crowd. Many years later, she would meet the girl who led the charge again, her short-lived power trip punished by the party by exiling her to a wheat field where she lost an arm to gangrene. Power is fickle; power is short-lived. But those in its thrall often forget that it would not last forever.

What causes people to crave power? Privilege? Lack of it? Lack of power? Helplessness or something broken inside you that has to be overcompensated with the external projection of invulnerability and power? Remember, inside these grown-up meat suits and fancy job titles, we are the same vulnerable kids who walked around holding a parent’s finger. Is power that finger’s substitute? Who is to say? But here is the next bad thing about power. It does not exist without the abuse of privilege. Without abuse, a job is just a job.

Suppose you have a powerful job, but you do not believe in bending the rules to suit yourself. What happens then? Nothing. Only pressure from friends and family (fnf). So and so was in this position before you. He or she retired as a rich, powerful man or woman. But look at you. You are a disgrace. Can’t even use your powers right. By right they mean wrongly. But day after day, you show up for the job, do what’s due and return. No one fears you. No one thinks you are even capable of putting power to personal use. In other words, a shareef (honest) or saada (simpleton) aadmi (man) who has ended up in the wrong lane and who has no right to be there. Being honest is a dig here.

Trust me, from ordinary traffic wardens to the country’s chief executives, I have known enough examples to tell you that power is the worst possible burden to carry. There is no bright side to it. You either lose face in front of the fnf network, or you lose your soul.

Then why do people pursue it? To serve the disempowered. Sure. And my name is Genghis Khan. Even the tamest among us pursue power not because mere wielding of it gives them a high. Just like holding a gun in public where people seldom know that you are probably never going to use it. In other words, you enjoy the chance of putting fear in people’s hearts. What does it tell you about your mental state, or heart and soul?

Call it glamour, call it power trip; all of these motivations are rooted either in a characteristic lack of self-awareness or faulty comprehension of the meaning of life. See, power does not last forever. And if you have invented or discovered a more durable form of power, life does not last forever. This is why you find only broken shells of aging former autocrats, generalissimos and potentates. But what is the point of regrets now? Providence accorded you with your proverbial two minutes in the sun, and you squandered them in the most ridiculous pursuit of any life: the chase of the ego. No use crying over spilt milk, is there?

Power is then like a racing car. When you are in the driving seat your senses of responsibility and caution are thrown to the wind and you think you cannot make mistakes. And just like an unfortunate and untimely slight turn of the steering wheel can cost many lives, your smallest mistakes can cost millions their lives, liberties and happiness. Why go there then?

Perhaps, the most compelling argument I have heard is this: “Look man, somebody is going to be in power at any rate. At least my presence ensures nobody evil is in that seat”. What? Just because it is compelling doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the dumbest arguments I have heard. Dumb because in politics there are no angels and demons. No one evil would think they are meant to be evil. No, every evil-doing narcissist has an unhealthily flattering view of self.

Power is always contextual. You think someone in power is evil? Just change the context and they stop being evil. Wait a minute. I am not asking you to stop calling a spade a spade. Nah. Only if you introduce the right kind of incentives people often stop behaving badly. Here is an example for you. Donald Trump. Whenever he was surrounded by his reactionary fans and sycophants he would say awful things. But then his daughter Ivanka and his wife Melania would try to drag him back to sanity and he would do good things. Perhaps buried deep in his nature there must be something good or this would not have been possible. Now imagine if the Overton window had shifted and instead of loving every temper tantrum he threw if his loyal fan base routinely frowned upon his outbursts do you think he could continue behaving like that? Never. Change leaders and bad behaviour may still persist. Change the context and it goes away. To get optimum results build a better system.

Only two things among the powerful frighten me. Incompetence and ideology. The first bit is self-explanatory. The second bit matters because if someone in this day and age thinks that some mortal mind in the past had all the answers and those solutions can be applied today, you better run away as fast as you can.

Perhaps, there is a lesson for ideologues in the story of Ashoka the Great. Yes the very same whose symbols today’s India borrows for its identity. In his last war against the state of Kalinga he encountered too much bravery and resistance where women fought side by side with men (unusual for its time). The scale of violence and death got to the man. He felt so much remorse that after victory he permanently renounced war and converted to Buddhism. But then not everyone gets a do-over, a second chance.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 30th, 2024.

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