One of Paul Krugmans columns in a recent issue of The New York Times startled me. For,its subject was VIP,an expression I had never before encountered during my frequent visits to,and a rather long stay in,the United States,either in the American media or in public and private discussions. From the article,it is clear that Krugman himself was taken aback when he heard the three-letter acronym,which stands for Very Important Person,being bandied about.
The occasion was Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romneys fund-raiser,where a donor waiting to get in demanded sternly,Is there a VIP entrance? We are VIPs. This,according to the columnist,pretty much sums up the attitude of Americas wealthy elite Romneys power base is composed of very self-important people (comprising) the top 0.01 per cent of the population. Nobody else throws his or her weight around in that country,and the common person doesnt give a damn about VIPs.
Here,of course,the situation is hugely different. The VIP status is flaunted in the face of countless millions every day,round the clock and round the calendar. You dont have to spell out the word; everyone knows what it means. In sharp contrast to what prevails in the US,the super-wealthy in India dont need to proclaim themselves VIPs. They get whatever they want without saying a word. The whole system seems geared to their needs and wishes. The odd tycoon who gets caught on the wrong side of the law lives in jail in greater luxury than five-star hotels can provide.
It is the political class,the army of bureaucrats and those who can muscle into the establishment (a great many do,including some whose only qualification is that they are related to some high up in power) that form the bedrock of the VIP cult and the perks and privileges that go with it.
Like much else,the VIP is a legacy of the British Raj. Independent India has not only embraced it with gusto but also expanded it vastly. For instance,all through the British rule,only the viceroy and the governors of 11 British Indian provinces could fly the flag on their cars. The only exceptions were army generals. Somewhere down the line,the English class system and Indias deathless caste system must have rubbed off on each other to produce the wonder that is the Indian VIP. From the morrow of Independence,all ministers were entitled to fly the national flag on their cars and in their homes. Cabinet ministers had the additional right to display on their vehicles the Ashoka emblem.
When Nehru went to his first Commonwealth prime ministers conference in London,he found that no British minister,including the prime minister,flew the flag on their limousine,a practice that continues even today. On returning home,he discarded the flag on his own Ambassador and told his colleagues to do the same. The scramble for the VIP status then took other manifestations. For example,Mohanlal Saxena wrote to Nehru that though he was a minister of state,he held full charge of the ministry of rehabilitation. He saw no reason,therefore,why the gates to his bungalow should be without the globes of light that adorned the entrances to cabinet ministers homes. Flags on the VIPs cars reappeared soon,though usually sheathed rather than fluttering.
Meanwhile,the events of the 1980s in Punjab and Kashmir,and the appearance of cross-border terrorism on the Indian scene had added to the woes of the helpless non-VIPs in direct proportion to the burgeoning privileges and pampering of those more equal than the rest. However,there is nothing so grim as not to have a comic side to it. Nothing causes so much resentment and bad blood among VIPs as a higher category of security assigned to someone else. They get angrier when told that security classification depends not on the status or seniority of the individual to be protected but on the threat perception by intelligence agencies.
What has taken over in a big way is the craze,and competition,for the red beacon or lal batti atop the cars. At first the privilege was restricted to a few at the very top but then it spread like an epidemic. Mercifully,the move to extend the right to lal batti to all the 800 MPs has been stalled for the present,at least. But imagine the havoc it would cause for the traffic in the nations capital when members of Parliament do get their coveted red beacon,as they almost certainly will. And please do not forget that what is sauce for MPs in Delhi is sauce also for MLAs in states.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator,firstname.lastname@example.org