In a symbolically powerful assertion of the principle and ideal of democratic equality, the Centre has banned the use of red beacon lights on cars used by VIPs. The Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi was the pioneer, of course, followed by the governments of Amarinder Singh and Yogi Adityanath in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, but this move extends the proscription to a national scale. Besides, the prime minister has stood India’s infamous VIP culture on its head by declaring that every Indian is a VIP. Now, no one other than the enforcement agencies and ambulances, which do need to travel faster than citizens, can use flashing lights to clear the way.
The move is belated but wholly welcome in a country where the VIP beacon had become a status symbol, a bauble for politicians and administrators to aspire to. By marking them apart from common people, it conferred power out of proportion with their standing. The sight of motorcades bright with red beacons, shouldering aside the common herd on the roads, put the message across with palpable force.
Indeed, the red beacon perpetuated, in democratic India, the segregation of the ruler and the ruled, which was a hallmark of colonial power. Historically, a noteworthy example of segregationism was the demolition of a part of Shahjahanabad in Delhi after the East India Company’s forces re-occupied the city following the rising of 1857. The intention was to drive a wide wedge between the Red Fort, which became the British citadel, from Chandni Chowk and the rest of the city, separating the ruler and the ruled. The red beacon is a distant descendant of the same colonial policy, and has no place in a democracy.
However, the egalitarian principle should be extended, for the red beacon is not the only expression of power on the move. Though shorn of their beacons, will VIPs’ cars still be allowed to zip through toll plazas in special lanes, leaving the public fuming in endless queues? Will VIP passengers be permitted to hold up aircraft, which they are wont to board fashionably late? Will they and their henchmen be allowed special access to railway bookings?
If an equal society is India’s declared objective, politicians and administrators should travel like ordinary people. A number of small privileges will have to be stripped to bring equity to a deeply classist society. Terrorism had provided the excuse for gifting VIPs with massive security details, whose size and armaments had become expressions of personal status and power, rather like expensive jewellery. It took a public outcry for that aberration to be rationalised. Now, the abolition of car beacons takes us another step closer to egalitarianism. And yet, a long road lies ahead.