WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
India's caste system was acceptable only as long as it related to one's profession or vocation and did not metamorphose into hereditary privileges. For centuries, India's very ethos has been corroded by our abomible caste system. And if this is not bad enough, we have now evolved a new caste that is even more indefensible and diabolic because it is created by a body of privileged parasites generally referred to as politicians, but more specifically our lawmakers who are the elected representatives of the people. This new caste is called VVIP (Very Very Important People). On could justifiably ask why two intensifiers are needed to qualify important people. This is because our lawmakers discovered very soon that VIPs or very important persons were a dime a dozen, and that the categorization did not result in the extent and the level of special privileges that they were seeking for themselves.
Before I go on to the kind of privileges that a VVIP is entitled to, it is perhaps important to take a closer look at the kind of people who seek and secure the special privileges for VVIPs. The elected representatives of the people or their lawmakers have no academic qualifications set for them. They could be school dropouts who are almost illiterate, or highly educated, sophisticated and intelligent persons even with doctoral degrees. The Indian Constitution makes no distinction between the almost illiterate lawmaker and the highly educated one when it comes to salary, allowances and perquisites or to the lifelong pensions they are entitled to after serving just one term of five years (sometimes even less) as a lawmaker. This unique breed of the human species is privileged enough to decide on its own salaries, allowances and perquisites and to keep enhancing such privileges from time to time without need to seek the approval of any other authority. And anyone who has cared to look at the salaries, allowances and perquisites of our MPs will admit that they are more than handsome and far beyond what the educatiol qualifications of most of our lawmakers might have ebled them to earn in the open market.
However, it is not their emoluments and perquisites that concern our lawmakers as much as their privileges as VVIPs do. Their salaries, allowances, perquisites, the free water and electricity and the free travel entitlements far in excess of their actual needs do not help them to forget that part of the people—that they too are citizens. It is the privileges that they are entitled to—privileges not available to other people—that they are far more concerned about. These privileges alone mark them out as being a different and a ‘superior’ species of human beings. These privileges alone eble them feel above the law. These privileges are their real and visible status symbols. And what do they amount to? To start with, there are special protection forces to accompany them wherever they go. The number of security personnel and the vehicles accompanying the VVIP is determined by the level of security deemed essential for the person. The perception of the required level of security is quite beyond the ken of ordiry mortals like us. I have seen the Prime Minister of India moving around in New Delhi with anything between three and six cars in his motorcade. Here, Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi goes around with 18 or 19 vehicles in tow. An ambulance regularly forms part of his cavalcade. Some time back the entire lot of Ambassador cars were replaced with Tata SUVs. Apparently this number is nothing compared to what former UP Chief Minister Mayavati had in her cavalcade every time she went out of the State by car. She is known to have even taken 115 vehicles on some occasions! Such ostentation is nothing but blatant misuse of power to display a perverse status symbol at public expense. What intrigued me were the 32 Ambassador cars that accompanied Prime Minister Inder Gujral when he was in Guwahati on a visit many years ago and visited Kamakhya temple with his wife. When will our ministers realize that their persol security is not a matter of mere numbers? Two physically fit and tough security guards with sharp reflexes can always ensure better security than a dozen pot-bellied guards with poor reflexes. It is these politicians who also talk about their country being poor. In fact, with their colossal waste of public money, they certainly make a major contribution in keeping India poor. One has only to make a tally of the number of ministers and parliamentary secretaries all over the country to arrive at a rough estimate of how much public money is being squandered by all of them trying desperately to outdo the others in a crude display of their power to waste public money in order to assert their status. In more civilized and highly developed countries like Norway and Sweden ministers ask for a car from the pool (which they drive themselves) whenever they have official work elsewhere. And almost invariably they are better educated ministers than most of our ministers and far more competent. They also command a great deal more of genuine respect from their people mainly because they are free of three sins so common to our ministers: corruption, megalomania and blatant waste of public money.
I have often wondered why our lawmakers are so obsessed with their VVIP status. Why must they be at such pains to demonstrate that they are far above the common people and above the laws of the land? I do not wonder any more. I know that their urge to impress us common people with their VVIP status stems from their inte and deep inferiority complex. In their heart of hearts they know that they are less than most common people in terms of education, competence and character. The very speed at which they become stinking rich tells everyone about the very dubious sources of their persol wealth. Since much of what happens to our politicians very fast cannot be hidden from the public, they must pretend that they are very special people because the people have elected them. It makes very little difference that some of them like Dr Manmohan Singh have been at the apex of power without ever having been elected. The mantra is that they are in Parliament or in one of the legislative assemblies because the people are behind them either as part of the electorate or as members of electoral colleges who can be told who to vote for by the powers that be. So they belong to the new caste that they have created for themselves called VVIP. [The only distinguished Indian politician I can think of who does not belong to the VVIP caste is Manik Sarkar, Chief Minister of Tripura.] This is a caste that flourishes by keeping all citizens not belonging to the caste outside it. It is a caste that believes in exclusivity in an age when democratic systems elsewhere are striving to be as inclusive as possible. This is a caste that can and does tell people that they don’t matter and can go to hell at all other times except just before elections. And it is a caste that can go indulging in the dirty pretence of showing mock respect to citizens just before elections and treat their voters like dirt at all other times. This is a caste that can hold up traffic for up to half an hour even if there is an ambulance carrying a heart patient or a woman just about to deliver a baby to the hospital. I have been witness to a couple of occasions where a citizen, well aware of people’s rights, has given policemen holding up ambulances for VVIPs a sound tongue-lashing to get the ambulance released. On both occasions the intrepid fighter was a woman. I know of two reported incidents when heart patients have died in ambulances held up because some VVIP was passing by. VVIPs can get on to commercial flights without any frisking. This means they can carry pistols or revolvers with them. Any Indian airport has oodles of parking space for VVIP cars even if there are no VVIPs on particular days. That space is never made available for ordiry citizens.
This is a caste that needs to be fought tooth and il because it is even worse than the existing caste system. It is a caste that has the people’s votes as currency even in system that has been so corrupted that elections are often won on votes that are bought. One way of dealing with this caste is to capitalize on the fact that people of this caste are accessible before elections. So people must insist that would-be lawmakers will have to face the electorate in dialogues just before the elections. Mere election speeches where candidates make empty promises will not do. They must be asked searching question on how far they will go in demolishing the VVIP caste. They must also be asked whether they will legislate on the right to recall of MPs and MLAs. And while these steps are gradually initiated and we fight for the right to recall legislators, the worshipful attitude of the people towards ministers must be replaced by a more businesslike attitude of treating lawmakers as being no more than representatives of the people.