City City Bang Bang, Columns

The resilience of the VIP

The banning of the Lal Batti is potentially a big step in eradicating the VIP culture that has become such an integral part of our lives. In many ways, both in a real and symbolic sense, the beacon that sat atop all kinds of apparently important people, was an attempt to emphasise the difference between the powerful and others.

By itself, the ability to claim the right to quicker passage in traffic, is privilege enough, but in this case, the siren as symbol was far more potent.

It signified a sense of screaming impatience with the very people that those in these vehicles were meant to represent. It identified people as the problem and power as the solution. By visibly identifying the special, it made everyone else ordinary.

We scurried out of the way for all manner of important missions-ambulances saving lives, police vehicles chasing criminals and district collectors on the way to their weekly review meeting.

And yet, barely a day after the banning of the beacon, driving down NH 24, no less than 3 siren-shrieking vehicles passed us. True to the Indian ability to find answers around all kinds of rules, regulations and laws, the sirens were placed on escort vehicles, while the unmarked private vehicles (in all 3 cases) simply followed in their wake.

As is normal, the escort police vehicle had the bravehearts in the back seat doing their duty by fearlessly gesturing to all traffic to make way for the ‘dignitaries’. It is easy to see what the future of this ban will look like.

All it will ensure is that more police personnel will be deployed to man escort vehicles for all those who have now been deprived of a red shiny toy on top of their cars.

This should surprise no one. Can one mere new rule change a time honoured practice? After all, India is made of sterner stuff. The whole point of reaching a position of power is to get the beacon, wangle some security and to hurtle past toll booths without paying.

As long as the principle that underpins this action is not challenged at a fundamental level, banning one action is bound to end up as a token nod to a half-hearted intent.

The incident involving Ravindra Gaikwad is a case in point. Far from condemning his atrocious behavior, by and large politicians rallied around him. A policy has been framed that codifies the no-fly regulation, but eventually it still needs to be enforced.

The people enforcing this rule do not have the authority to do so. Even if in a formal sense, that right may be available, in the real world, few constables in their right mind would challenge a councilor let alone a judge or an MP.

The expectation that MPs must get special treatment is an entrenched one; a few months back there were reports that a group of legislators were going around airports to check for facilities – not for paying passengers but for themselves.

There can be no piece-meal approach to this problem. We cannot have a separate protocol for VIP handling for at airports. We cannot keep thinking of the waiver of frisking during airport security as a privilege, we cannot allow officials to put their designations on their car registration plates.

We cannot link the payment of taxes or tolls with who is meant to be paying these. The moment we accept that differential treatment is due to people who are brushed with power, we are furthering the VIP culture.

It is also important to acknowledge that in the Indian social context, VIP privileges are not always demanded, but they are very often given voluntarily. We heap privilege on those that we think are powerful. Craven, ingratiating behavior is the norm when dealing with ‘high’ officials or politicians.

The extent to which this behavior is considered normal can be gauged by how easily and publicly a self-important high official can start groveling the moment someone even higher appears on the scene.

Public functions in India inevitably involve a scatter-diagram of fawning attention that surrounds any dignitary. The tableau of an untidy gaggle of people alternating between barking orders at underlings and groveling energetically in the direction of the presiding deity is a common sight.

The market for symbols of inequality continues to boom in India. Which is why, if one is serious about tackling this issue, it needs concerted and comprehensive action. For the message to get across, it is imperative that action begins within political parties. Unless the party itself takes the lead in disciplining its errant members, no change can be forthcoming.

As the ruling party, it would behoove the BJP to take the lead in this matter. It isn’t easy; seventy years of a particular kind of political culture that cuts across parties cannot be changed overnight, but if there is seriousness of intent and if the move to ban beacons for VIPs is not an exercise in tokenism, then there is really isn’t another way.

As far as the electorate goes, there is genuine anger against the VIP culture. This is in part what fueled the Anna Hazare led movement a few years ago and even though that particular impulse has not led to any lasting change, the need to dismantle the aura of entitlement around the powerful continues to be a strong one. Importantly it is a need that cuts across political ideologies, insofar as the voter is concerned.

Any chance of this kind will be resisted, both covertly and overtly, as is already being reported. Narendra Modi has the political capital to put real force behind this initiative.

But so far, there is little in his own persona, which seems completely at ease with the idea of power distance or in the political platforms that he has espoused that suggests that this will be a serious priority. The lal battis have gone, but it is unlikely that much else will change.

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