Consider the paradox. Prime Minister Narendra Modi exhorted his party MPs from Uttar Pradesh last week to give up the mindset of lal batti, specifically to be humble, shun any notion of hierarchy, and freely mingle with the common man. In parallel, the UP government directed all District Magistrates to earmark separate lanes for MLAs, MLCs and MPs at toll plazas, including national highways. And as per the Central government notification, no road toll can be charged from them.
The Modi sarkar’s fiat against the lal-neel batti on vehicles of the privileged with effect from 1 May 2017 signalled the intent to strike a major blow to the VIP cult that has afflicted nation’s psyche, as the Prime Minister observed in his mann-ki-baat radio broadcast. The obvious reaction of the “VIP” beneficiaries across almost the entire political and bureaucratic spectrum would convince Mr Modi that the country will not rid itself of the pernicious virus anytime soon. Even the spartan Mamata Banerjee has with alacrity designed a substitute by way of flags that will flutter on state government vehicles. This will signal to aam aadmi to be aware of the occupant’s position and thus make way for the high and mighty VIP/VVIP being ferried in the vehicles.
Recently, a UP MLA was involved in a spat with a woman police officer on duty. Be it a neta or a babu, the VIP considers himself to be superior to the common folk, and are ever so intent on asserting their supremacy as representatives of mai baap sarkar. The idea is to extract the maximum from the system. Jettisoned in the process are the ideals of the nascent republic when Union Ministers, pre-eminently Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, would queue up incognito in a post office in order to assess the shortcomings in services and travails of the people.
As Modi himself perceived, elimination of the red beacon by itself may not free the system from the VIP culture. Trust the ingenuity and audacity of our netas and babus who had craftily manoeuvred to leverage a clause and rule in the Motor Vehicles Act about “signalling appliances” to arrogate to themselves a class distinction. They now ferret myriad specious arguments and raise the bogey of security and speed required in their movement to justify an exemption from the order. There are already overtures to explore jugaads to circumvent the ban, for example, by fitting siren/hooter on the vehicle. The Prime Minister has adopted an unequivocal stand, and the Government must in no case dilute or dither. At least the BJP governments in states and legislators must set an example.
Whether it is the overwhelming urge of a lal batti on the vehicle, the shining beacon of arrogance and authority that has been extended even to the family, or the licence to jump the queue in general, to extort a special treatment, the malignant VIP virus has spread unchecked. Carrying his own bag is beneath dignity for a neta or a babu. Privileges and perquisites to legislators and government are as often as not far in excess of salary. Isn’t there a case for doing away with vestiges of feudalism like huge residential bungalows, cavalcades of cars, servant quarters, retinue of personal staff, bungalow peons? The Government at the Centre and in the States may pay a composite remuneration to most of the public servants and legislators as in most countries as well as in global business and industry, in the United Nations and other similar world bodies.
Since Independence, the lifestyles of people in power or position have changed dramatically. Pre-1947, we had the pomp and circumstance of the British Raj (excusable in a sense as they had an empire to rule and a corresponding message to send down to the ruled) and the grandiose panoply of the Maharajas and Nawabs (understandable but not excusable). The lure of an easy, extravagant and sybaritic lifestyle has captivated the privileged. Today, austerity, frugality, and thrift are considered old-fashioned.
It is no surprise that Members of Parliament find it infra dig to travel by air in “cattle class”, obsessed with demand for automatic upgradation to business class in public as well as private carriers, ever so voracious for sumptuous meals, besides “protocol” ~ a euphemism for being received and pampered like the maharajas. Ministers are ever so eager to pander to their ego and play the Santa Claus.
Profligacy in public life runs counter to the country’s democratic ethos. Mahatma Gandhi derived immense moral power, awe and respect despite an austere lifestyle. As Rabindramath Tagore once explained, “Gandhiji sat at the threshold of the huts of the thousands of dispossessed, dressed like one of their own.
He spoke to them in their own language.” His countrywide travels by train and in the lowest class helped him to identify himself with the masses. Austerity in public life was the identity benchmark.
What is austerity? Let us examine what austerity does not entail. It does not mean having your car fitted with a flashing light and a wailing siren. It is not jumping queues, nor whisking the privileged away from the essential security drill at airport. It does not imply audacious adulation so often splashed in newspaper advertisements at huge public cost.
It is not about Ministers, Governors and leaders with a vast retinue of hangers-on and a battery of officials in tow, spending public money on travel, entertainment, extravagance in renovation of offices and bungalows, and ever newer models of cars. It is no austerity to get narcissistic and vainly erect monuments. On the other hand, austerity does not imply stark puritanism. Austerity is certainly no sanctimonious hypocrisy. An austere lifestyle demonstrates an abiding identity with aam aadmi.
President Pranab Mukherjee hailed our Parliament as a temple of democracy. Do our MPs ever reflect on why the former President’s allusion led to widespread public derision? Recall how the other day several Members of Parliament zealously avowed to secure their special status instead of strongly condemning the despicable ruckus created by their colleague only because he had to travel in the economy class on a short air flight from Pune to Delhi.
Despite the high decibel pledges of our netas committed to the idea of an inclusive and egalitarian India, they remain obsessed with the urge to derive the maximum for themselves. They chant, “all men are equal”, but want to be more equal than the others. The Modi government has been raising people’s expectations of achchhe din in a swachchh, new India. It has a long, arduous journey ahead to make it happen.
The writer is Senior Fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development, and former CMD, Container Corporation of India.