You only have to have a passing knowledge of New Delhi to know the two types of people who inhabit this city: ordinary folk and VIPs.
There are subtle sub-divisions within each of these categories. For instance, an ordinary member of Parliament might qualify only as a plain-vanilla VIP but a cabinet minister gets catapulted straight into the VVIP bracket. Similarly, I fall firmly under the ordinary folk banner. But as a journalist, I am aware of certain fringe benefits—not least of which is the power to write.
Regardless of which type of VIP you are talking about, all have certain privileges: The right to free housing, free electricity, free phones, and so on. Nobody really resents these because they are part of the job.
MPs get free aeroplane tickets in order to attend Parliament in New Delhi and then go back to their constituencies to attend to the needs of those who voted for them. And considering that our public functionaries, at least the honest ones, aren’t exactly rolling in it (compared with their peers in the private sector), it’s churlish to grudge them their free phones and free homes.
It’s when the perks become not so much about the perks as about pulling rank that the VIP syndrome begins to raise hackles.
In the mid to late 1990s, for instance, bizarre as it might seem, getting Z class security status was actually regarded by some as a status symbol. While many were justified either because of the office they held or because of a very real threat perception, there were many whose inclusion defied logic. I don’t remember the complete list but, at one point in time, even Rajesh Khanna, forgotten-filmstar-turned-Congress MP, had Z class security. Then there were those such as Mulayam Singh Yadav, who flaunted their “Black Cat” commandoes like the latest fashion accessory, posing with them for magazine covers.
Then again, a free phone is one thing, a free ticket to every show in town is quite another.
Event organizers will tell you the reason why so many international musicians bypass New Delhi and plump for Bangalore or Mumbai instead is the huge pressure put on them for “VIP passes”.
Similarly, passes doled out for cricket matches at the Ferozeshah Kotla grounds can sometimes exceed the number of sold tickets. When VIPs begin invoking their divine right to everything free (and that includes never having to queue up for anything), it creates justifiable resentment among ordinary folk.
I thought of the VIP syndrome once again when in the third week of November, Union defence minister A.K. Antony informed the Rajya Sabha that the civil aviation ministry had turned down his ministry’s request to exempt the three service chiefs from being frisked at Indian airports.
The protests that followed were predictable: If Robert Vadra (married to a woman who requires protection of the highest order, given that her grandmother and father were both assassinated) is exempted from being frisked (but only when he accompanies his wife or mother-in-law), then why should the service chiefs be subjected to this “indignity”?
The logic is infallible. If we can trust these honourable men with protecting the country in times of war and peace, then they are probably not going to hijack the next Indian Airlines flight they board.
But the point to me was: Why is being frisked by a CRPF jawan at New Delhi or Mumbai airport an “indignity” in the first place?
Whatever happened to the notion that those in public life were, well, public servants rather than exalted members of the ruling elite? And why shouldn’t everybody regardless of rank or office be subject to the same rules that apply to every citizen of the country?
If former US vice-president Al Gore can be stopped for extra screening at an American airport (he was at the time no longer vice-president but a private citizen and declared that he was “more than happy to do his part for airport security”), then why do such Indian VIPs as former Union defence minister George Fernandes and Speaker of the Lok Sabha Somnath Chatterjee feel a sense of degradation when they are frisked?
George Fernandes was reportedly asked to take off his shoes and socks at a US airport while Somnath Chatterjee cancelled a trip to Australia rather than let officials physically search him.
In the 1980s, the list of those exempted from being frisked at Indian airports was limited to the president, prime minister, chief justice of the Supreme Court, the Lok Sabha speaker and state governors.
Today, with the service chiefs having won the battle against being frisked, the list includes the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, the attorney general of India and all Bharat Ratnas.
VIPs would do well with a lesson in humility. I know I’m waiting with my vote for the first VIP who volunteers himself (or herself) for frisking.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org