While on a walking tour of Ljubljana (capital of Slovenia), a group of Indian tourists were surprised to see the country’s President walking across streets to his office with a handbag in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. No escorts, no red lights and no sirens. He kept exchanging pleasantries with fellow citizens. The local tour guide informed the group that the President was staying in her building and had coffee in the neighbouring restaurant every morning.
Disbelief was writ large on the group’s faces. Having been treated as second class citizens by India’s VIP class, they envied the Slovenians and wondered if India could ever dream of having a similar order and be rid of flashing red lights, speeding convoys, large fleets, blaring sirens, blocked roads and rude escorts that make general public feel humiliated.
Therefore, the country was pleasantly surprised to learn of the decision to ban the use of red lights on vehicles. Red light symbolises authority, muscle and privileged position. It helps VIPs whizz through heavy traffic and toll barriers. Craze for the red beacon borders on mania.
Prime Minister Modi tweeted that every Indian was a VIP and the culture of beacon should have gone long ago as these symbols are out of touch with the spirit of new India. Road and Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari rightly hoped that the decision would bring more credibility to the political class. "This is a very important decision for the democracy because a lot of people have a lot of hatred, with the behaviour of the politician," he said.
Undoubtedly, India’s VIP culture is symptomatic of feudal mindset. VIPs start considering themselves to be a class apart – a part of the ruling elite that is above the law and closer to being demi-gods who dispense favours to their hoodlum followers. They become arrogant and egotistical. Their innate traits of self-aggrandisement manifest themselves in a number of ways. They behave in a boorish manner, consider it below their dignity to await their turn, demand precedence at every place and consider themselves to be a privileged lot. In short, their behaviour becomes obnoxious and unbecoming of their status.
Banning of red light is certainly a bold major step. But if the government is serious about abolishing VIP culture, it needs to do much more. Here are three suggestions.
The first one pertains to the cavalcade that accompanies a VIP and the quantum of security provided. Importance of a VIP is judged by the number of security men surrounding him, hence the race to extract the highest category of security. Over 60 percent of NSG commando strength is deployed on personal security duties. It is an obnoxious sight to see thugs masquerading as mass leaders and protected by elite security personnel.
Many leaders intentionally create adversaries by their irresponsible statements and thereafter seek state protection for personal safety. We have states in which the leader of one party apprehends a threat from another party and demands government protection, while the leader of the second party seeks similar security fearing attack by the first party. Both leaders (who may be petty gangsters) are provided state security. There cannot be a worse misuse of taxpayers’ money.
Some citizens are of the view that like common citizens, dignitaries should also learn to live with day to day trepidations and risks. If a leader is so timid and cowardly with regard to his personal safety, he might as well stay out of public life.
The second suggestion is about the practice of addressing dignitaries as Honourable. It is anachronistic in a democracy. By putting them on a pedestal, we give them a false sense of importance that makes them arrogant. Such sycophantic addresses go to their head. Imagined self-importance gives them delusions of privileged position. No wonder that some Honourable dignitaries conduct themselves in a most dishonourable manner by behaving like street goons. Subservience is not a sign of respectfulness.
Entry of the Rajya Sabha Chairman is announced, “Honourable Members, Honourable Chairman.” And soon thereafter, we see the Honourable Members storming the well of the house, shouting slogans, displaying placards, tearing papers, disobeying the chair and impeding business of the house. Smug smiles appear on their faces on forcing adjournment of the house. Prefix Honourable appears incongruent. Why not refer to the dignitaries as Mr Chairman, Mr Speaker, Mr Minister and Mr Member.
Similarly, why should courts and judges be called Honourable? It should suffice to address them with due respect without any embellishments. In January 2014, the Supreme Court had clarified that judges should be addressed in courts in a respectful and dignified manner and it is not compulsory to call them ‘my lord’, ‘your lordship’ or ‘your honour’. The observation was made during the hearing of a petition which said that addressing judges as ‘my lord or your lordship’ in courts was a relic of colonial era and a sign of slavery.
The third suggestion pertains to the most abused term ‘privilege’. It divides the country into privileged and non-privileged classes. The concept of privilege is used as a smoke screen to misappropriate public resources and facilities and to evade accountability. Every legislature, every court and every office has privileges which they guard zealously. Faulting them can land a citizen in serious trouble for ‘contempt proceedings’.
Why should it be the privilege of a VIP to delay a flight or train, or demand specific seats? Why cannot they travel like ordinary citizens? How are they empowered to usurp the rights of fellow travellers? Why should there be VIP lounges at the airports? Will sitting with common people who elected them reduce their status?
A few years ago, while on a visit to Copenhagen an Indian visitor saw the Queen of Denmark doing her weekly shopping of household requirements in a mall, accompanied by a solitary maid. The Queen was picking up the required items from the shelves and the maid was pushing the cart. Being used to seeing Indian leaders (accompanied by security personnel) causing immense inconvenience to common citizens in public places, his surprise was natural.
Attitude is defined as a predisposition or inclination in respect of something or someone; and it is not easy to change attitudes. Therefore, VIPs will not shed their culture easily, banning of red lights notwithstanding. They will certainly find a way out. Jugaad (innovative making-do) is our innate strength. For example, some will insist that their cavalcades be piloted by a police vehicle with blue beacon as an ‘emergency measure’.
Let us see how the things unfold. These are interesting times.
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