Change and transformation indicate dynamism. Welcome to the VIP-Land that is India in which our beloved caste system has transformed into a new avatar with only two major castes: VIPs and non-VIPs. In this land, VIPs rule the roost and everyone else exists only to serve and kowtow to them.
While the 21st century world modernises at a fast pace, embracing democratic ethos and imbibing egalitarian values of equality, in India, VIPs are worshipped as entitled divinities, having all the privileges and the rights including the right to violate any law, and the right to be more equal than others. Everyone else has but only one responsibility which is to protect their divine rights which are sacrosanct and inviolable.
They and their children are entitled to preferential treatment everywhere, from the temple to the funeral pyre. In VIPland, no one else has any rights. Did someone say “fundamental right”? Rights and privileges are fundamental only to the existence of VIPs, and they have been usurped so fundamentally by them that nothing is left for the ordinary mortals. Hierarchies are ingrained in the Indian psyche and it is little wonder that the caste system continues to thrive going from strength to strength to the delight of politicians.
However, in the VIP-land that is India, everything is so layered that even the new caste system looks increasingly like the old one, with the VIPs coming in different layers ~ Minister VIPs, MP-MLA-Neta VIPs, Party VIPs, Bureaucrat VIPs, Judicial VIPs, Religious VIPs, Underworld VIPs ~ the list indeed is endless, like an infinite array of hierarchically structured social entities embedded within each other, each asserting and extracting its own rights.
And thus, in a country that is hopelessly short of policemen to ensure law and order and check crime against ordinary people, more than 47,000 cops are paid from the public exchequer to protect around 14,800 VIPs. While there are roughly three policemen protecting one VIP, there is only a single cop for 700 ordinary citizens. That makes one VIP’s security worth 2100 commoners who nevertheless have to foot the bill for their security. Long live the VIPs. Rights are always nebulous and amorphous, when they apply to the VIPs.
Sometime ago, the Madras High Court issued a directive to the National Highways Authority to create exclusive lanes for VIPs and sitting judges at all toll plazas in the country, not because their time is more precious than ordinary folks’, but because it is humiliating to wait at the toll plazas in line with the common people and pay the toll fees like ordinary citizens.
The court held it to be ‘disheartening’ and ‘very unfortunate’ that judges are ‘compelled to wait in the toll plaza for 10 to 15 minutes’. Similarly, the Supreme Court ruling forbidding the use of the ubiquitous “Lal Batti” on the cars of VIPs went nowhere, the “Batti” only changed colour from red to blue, and became as effective in proclaiming the exalted status of the VIPs as distinguished from ordinary mortals.
Flashing lights and blaring horns were synonymous to their existence, how could these be sacrificed just because a few judges had wished it? During the heyday of the Left which ruled West Bengal like its own empire, people would have to wait at traffic lights for hours when CM Jyoti Basu’s convoy would pass on its way to Writers’ Building, stopping every other moving object on the streets.
“Equality” which the Left breathed and drank is a fluid concept, and VIPs are always more equal. Every time a VIP passes, the lives of ordinary citizens have to come to a standstill to make his life more comfortable. It is the sacrosanct duty of the State in our illustrious democracy to make some people superior and others inferior. This grandstanding is indeed a hallmark of the egalitarian VIPland where those with money and power must act and be treated differently. This is the DNA of the VIP-land.
The choices that the VIP makes unilaterally defines and conditions the rest of society. The immutable law in VIP-land is that VIPs will remind others of their own places. There will be VIP lounges at airports, and until recently there were some 30 VIPs including a certain famous sonin-law who were exempted from the mandatory security checks. India’s soil is fertile enough for the VIP culture to strike ever deeper roots.
It is an inalienable part of our national culture and tradition from which it cannot be disentangled. In an evolved democracy, VIP-culture is a completely alien thing ~ it is very usual to find a minister taking public transport anywhere in Europe. In a beautiful Caribbean country in which I had lived and worked as a tax advisor to the Government for a few years, it was very natural to bump into the Deputy Prime Minister standing in line at the bank when he would invariably offer me his place as a matter of courtesy.
In this glorious country with 5,000 years of history, however, a Shiv Sena MP was boasting of hitting a senior official of Air India with his slipper 25 times for refusing him a seat in the business class. In another country he would have been expelled from the party, charged with assault and lost his seat for such thuggish behaviour, but not here.
Air India did put him in the no-fly list, but threatened with disruption of air travel by Shiv Sena, the Centre capitulated and ordered Air India to take him off the list. Politicians, once elected, have no compulsion to consider the sentiments of a public sick to death of this toxic and disgusting culture.They do not even reckon how the common public think of the VIPs ~ as parasites on society.
No one now talks of ending the VIP-culture. In his monthly Mann Ki Baat, the Prime Minister had once exhorted that with the Lal Battis, the mindset of VIP culture should also go. “In the New India concept”, he said, “instead of VIP, there has to be EIP or Every Person is Important”. The PM must be commended for empowering the citizens to self-attest their credentials while taking away from the VIPs their opportunity of demonstrating their power yet again.
But even he has been powerless to restrain his ministries and departments from promoting the VIP culture. While the Maharaja is being privatised to the relief of taxpayers along with an increasing number of airports, the VIP culture remains firmly in place at the airport. Recently the Ministry of Civil Aviation has written to all airlines, airport operators and the aviation security regulator to ensure compliance with the protocol/ courtesy/ support to the MPs at airports, asking them to “to comply with the same in letter and spirit”.
These protocols include the airport’s Duty Manager and senior staff facilitating the MPs for completing check-in formalities and to reserve front row seats for them, a protocol officer to be identified to assist them, to provide them access to reserved lounges along with free tea/coffee/water, besides coordinating with the CISF for smooth, prompt security check while ensuring that “MPs are extended due courtesy/priority during security checks”, etc.
None of these are available to ordinary mortals. Apparently, some MPs had complained that private airlines were not following the protocol. Faced with mounting criticism, the Civil Aviation Ministry went into damage control mode, asserting that this was not a fresh guideline but only a reiteration of earlier guidelines issued in 2007.
The VIP culture is so deeply ingrained that no one even felt the need to be apologetic about the inherent inequality in such a directive making most citizens inferior to a few. Blind with power and drunk on privileges, politicians who depend on the vote of the ordinary citizens don’t even realise that such directives, fresh or old, strike at the very core of democracy, undermining the dignity of ordinary citizens.
In the VIP-land, there shall always be governments of the VIPs, by the VIPs and for the VIPs. During our colonial days, the British masters ruled imperiously over their conquered subjects, divided into a complex and embedded hierarchy of castes and sub-castes which they exploited to keep us subjugated. After their departure, Desi Rajas and Maharajas seamlessly stepped into their shoes, appropriating the privileges of their erstwhile masters which perpetuated the sickening VIP culture.
Even Mr Modi has been powerless to drive a wedge into its solid structure. So, while on the one hand, India modernises itself, assuming a position of increasing importance in global affairs, on the other, it regresses into a medieval, feudal society that militates against the very spirit of democracy. Cry, India, cry. The past is never forsaken and the future of our dreams is unattainable. We shall forever live in the hollow present filled only with phoney rhetoric.
(The writer is a commentator, author and an academic. Opinions expressed are personal)