When Mahatma Gandhi was diagnosed with malaria, his doctor had advised him to use a mosquito net. Gandhiji refused to buy one, citing poverty of his fellow citizens and went to bed after rubbing kerosene oil on his skin to keep the winged pests away. Our first President Dr. Rajendra Prasad declined pension, while former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri said No to his salary, which ended up in the National Calamity Fund. These facts reportedly came to light recently when dusty files in the Home Ministry were being cleared. When Kamaraj was the Chief Minister of Tamil, his cabinet colleagues had installed a hand pump at his elderly mother’s home. When Kamaraj came to know of this, he is said to have deducted the money for the pump from their salaries. Those were the years when politics was about public service and not entitlement.
Today, an MP beats airline staff with his footwear because he wasn’t given a business class seat on a flight that had no such seats. An MLA slaps a toll gate attendant because his car was allegedly stopped for ten seconds. The other day, I noticed a billboard which projected a common man asking a simple question: “If an ordinary citizen who has one car feels the pinch when fuel prices are hiked, why don’t those who have ten cars in their convoys?” It’s against this backdrop of VVIP culture that Prime Minister Modi’s ban on red beacons atop vehicles of Ministers and Officials, except high constitutional functionaries like the President, Vice President, Lok Sabha Speaker and Chief Justice of India, needs to be commended. Full marks to the PM. It’s easy to be cynical and call it tokenism. But it’s a start. And when the lead emanates from the top, change happens.
While Prophets of Doom can be ignored, it is also important to seize the opportunity and push for a substantial end to this VIP mindset. Just like titles were abolished by a Constitution amendment, the colonial hangover needs to become history. The British ruled us. We were victims of foreign yoke. Democracy replaced rulers with elected representatives and public servants. Symbols of power are not just irrelevant but anathema to a civilised nation. The Preamble to our Constitution is emphatic about “equality of status and of opportunity” among other ideals. There is no room for holders of public office to display authority, much less arrogance, to citizens they are paid to serve. Good commentary for a column but what’s the ground reality?
Before Independence, the fiery Lokmanya Tilak had thundered: “Swaraj is my birth-right and I will have it.” Today, our leaders seem to take their VIP status as their birth-right in almost every sphere of public life. There are VIP special counters, entrances, gates, routes and queues. There are VIP quotas for hospital beds, for ’emergency’ rail tickets, for admission in schools and colleges and jobs. There are VIP boxes in movie theatres and sports stadia. There are VIP parking lots, VIP elevators and even VIP darshans of God. The practice has become so entrenched that, for instance, any VIP standing in a queue, especially at a polling booth, becomes news with a snap of the day!
The Constitution is clear. There cannot be two classes of citizens. Equality before the law enshrined under Article 14 and a prohibition of all forms of discrimination under Article 15 of the Constitution are the bedrock of our democracy. But in practice, a patient dying in an ambulance will be discriminated against even with traffic signals that will turn red for the red beacon convoy of some VIP to pass. The ambulance would need to reach the hospital to save lives. The convoy perhaps to reach a venue for the VIP to cut a ribbon or read out a prepared speech on the virtues of democracy. Even in a matter of life and death, should power and pelf and status trump real emergency?
Mind you, it’s not just the red beacons or blue beacons or star plates or flags or VIP numbers but also gun toting security personnel. That’s as much a status symbol as the revolving lights. And let’s not blame politicians and officials alone. Press, Advocates and Doctors stickers must not be viewed as a licence to flout traffic rules but for the limited purpose of authorised entry into places of work.
The Bible, in the book of Matthew Chapter 23, Verse 12, cautions us: “He who humbles himself will be exalted; and he who exalts himself will be humbled”. These principles seem lost on our bigwigs. In the long run, leaders who are down to earth, duty conscious, clean and accessible will need no security or convoys or manifestos with freebies. In a democracy, the citizen is the real VIP.
(Sanjay Pinto is a Lawyer at the Madras High Court, Columnist, TV Political Commentator, Author, Public Speaker & Former Resident Editor – NDTV 24×7)