Around three years ago, Mumbai’s then mayor Snehal Ambekar (of the Shiv Sena) installed a red beacon on top of her car. The city’s mayor, she argued, was equivalent to the state’s chief minister and was therefore entitled to this perk. That the rules said otherwise did not matter to her — Ms Ambekar refused to remove it despite being told to. Of course, no one took action against her — she just continued brazenly. Two years after that, the Maharashtra mayors’ council, to which all mayors in the state belonged (Ms Ambekar was its president), demanded that they too be allowed to use the red beacon on their cars. Clearly, her example had inspired them. Now, after the Central government’s decision to ban (in a way of speaking) beacons on all official cars (except for emergency vehicles), the mayors’ demand of course becomes pointless. After the new governments in both Uttar Pradesh and Punjab asked their ministers and officials to shun this privilege, the Narendra Modi government at the Centre too has said ministers and bureaucrats will have to stop using it from May 1. Already, in the spirit of “sacrifice”, IAS officers in different parts of the country have “voluntarily” given up their red beacons.
Is there anyone in India (barring those affected by this order) who is unhappy with this new rule? The red beacon — lal batti — by itself is not the issue, it is what it implies and what goes with it. Who hasn’t had to get out of the way when a beacon-flashing car accompanied by a cavalcade sweeps by? It could be anyone in the vehicle — many vehicles even have dark windows, contrary to the law. The beacon is enough — it implies not just position, but also importance and the rushing car suggests that the time of the person inside it is far more precious than that of all other ordinary mortals. So, two cheers for this latest move! But let’s hold back one cheer. Because while the disappearance of the red beacon will undoubtedly reduce the “VIP quotient” of many on the roads, the basic problem remains unaddressed. Red beacons are just one of the many manifestations of the VIP culture rampant in India and those aren’t going away anytime soon. This is a culture that combines the worst feudalistic tendencies embedded in our DNA with the perks that the political and bureaucratic classes have awarded themselves over the years. Not that this is limited to them — filmstars, sports heroes, tycoons, all of them join the VIP club if they are rich and famous. They expect to be treated differently from the mass of citizens.
This sense of entitlement is fostered, even encouraged, by the rest of us. The airport is a good place to see how this works. First the VIP — and it could be an official or a celebrity — rarely, if ever, queues up to enter the terminal. More often than not they are whisked through a separate entrance. Then they are escorted to the VIP waiting lounge, accompanied by bowing and scraping airport officials and followed by a few others who more likely than not have left their workplaces. The entourage naturally also includes gun-toting securitymen. The whole spectacle is meant to send out a message: “Look at me, I am important”. But it is the hangers-on who are equally, if not more, culpable — where is the need to do so much bowing and scraping? If the person is genuinely important because of his/her post, at best one official can attend to them. And what about us, the ordinary citizens? There is hardly any protest, just some grumbling after which things settle down. There are a few “VIPs” who will make it a point to queue up for security, but, alas, too few.
Sadly, this VIP culture is codified — there are scores of exceptions who are not supposed to be frisked, according to government rules. Are we surprised that politicians throw their weight around or, in extreme cases, even get violent? The Shiv Sena MP who slapped the Air India official obviously thought he had the full right do so, that it was a perk given to him. The airport is just one example. Even temples have fallen victim to this malaise. Visit any famous place of prayer and pilgrimage around the country and you will see a separate entrance for the important, the well-connected and, of course, the wealthy. A hefty donation will buy the devotee a special audience with the deity. In Mumbai, the city’s temples have entrances for quick and undisturbed darshans for VIPs.
That they are making a mockery of the whole idea of a temple, where all are meant to be equal in the eyes of the Almighty, does not even strike them to be odd. The VIP culture has been ubiquitous. And the number of important and self-important persons continues to grow. They demand, and often get, special treatment. In an era of shortages, this meant jumping queues for many things, from telephones and gas connections to seats in trains. Those days have happily gone, but the VIP has remained with us. India is a democracy and a republic, which means every citizen is equal except for the thousands of VIPs all over the country. Doing away with the lal batti, 70 years after India became independent, is a great first step, but there is so much more yet to be done.