The Central government has banned the use of red beacons atop official cars of high dignitaries. But the question making the rounds is whether it will end the pernicious ‘VIP culture’ in the country. The Central Motor Vehicle Rules, 1989 will be amended, particularly Rule 108 which deals with use of coloured lights on vehicles. Henceforth, only blue beacons will be allowed atop vehicles used for emergency, relief and rescue services, ambulances, fire tenders and police vans. Giving credit to Prime Minister rendra Modi for the ban, Fince Minister Arun Jaitley has said there will be “no exceptions”. So it should apply to constitutiol dignitaries like the President, Vice President and the Chief Justice of India as well. There can’t be any exceptions ‘when the rule itself is not there in the rule book’, Jaitley has said, terming it a move to ‘strengthen democratic values’. The Congress has, unsurprisingly, poured scorn over the move, dubbing it ‘symbolic politics’ to gain high moral ground. The opposition party has pointed out that the Supreme Court back in 2013 had ruled on this issue, and only now the government has chosen to act upon it. The debate on VIP culture had taken off after the apex court began hearing a PIL on Z-category security cover to a UP legislator, later enlarging the scope of the matter in public interest. The criteria for permitting beacon lights soon came under the SC scanner, with the judges using strong words to criticise the widespread abuse of this ‘status symbol’. Decrying it as reflective of ‘Raj mentality’ and ‘antithesis of the concept of a Republic’, the SC bench had observed: “The red lights symbolise power and a stark differentiation between those who are allowed to use it and the ones who are not. A large number of those using vehicles with red lights have no respect for the laws of the country and they treat the ordiry citizens with contempt. The use of red lights on the vehicles of public representatives and civil servants has perhaps no parallel in the world’s democracies”.
When the apex court directed Central and state governments to prune the list of ‘constitutiol dignitaries’ and high officials who can have red beacons on their vehicles for discharge of official duties, the hemming and hawing began. In states like Punjab, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, most senior government functiories jockeyed hard to stay in the ‘lal batti’ list. Those who could not ‘mage’ the coveted red light, settled for flashing blue and amber lights. There were exceptions — like Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)-led Delhi government which was the first to remove red beacons from the vehicles of ministers, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and several ministers foregoing the use of flashing red lights, as well as Assam CM Sarbanda Sonowal and Gujarat CM Vijay Rupani directing traffic police authorities not to halt regular traffic to allow their convoys to pass. Prime Minister rendra Modi too has frequently directed his convoy to move without route restrictions or blocks. But after newly elected Punjab CM Amarinder Singh and Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityath decided to ban or limit red lights atop official cars, some other states seemed interested in following suit. However, the Modi government’s move to abolish red beacons totally, does not mean that traffic restrictions will be given up when protected leaders are on the move. Governments in this country will have to come clear on how to mitigate public inconvenience when VIP convoys get right of way, particularly when critically ill patients are left stranded in the jam. It is good that red beacons are being junked — even terrorists have misused it, like in the 2001 attack on Parliament or the attack on Pathankot air base last year. Much depends on whether the police will give up their high-handed ways in shoving people off the road in their anxiety to sanitise it for VIPs and VVIPs. The mindset of privilege and entitlement, of the type shown by a boorish Shiv Se MP recently in thrashing an elderly Indian Airlines employee with his footwear, is not going to go away anytime soon. It is such abuse of power and authority by public functiories that the public must not put up with any more. Banning red lights is merely the first blow upon the obnoxious VIP culture. Thankfully, it has come from the top, but more pressure needs be built up from the bottom.