“Don't you know who I am”, seems to capture the spirit of India's VVIP and VIP syndrome that politicians and officials in power exhibit often.
It was this syndrome that was in evidence during the politicians’ outbursts on the frisking of former president APJ Abdul Kalam at the Delhi international airport.
While Continental Airline has now apologised, and Kalam himself doesn’t seem to mind being subject to rudimentary security checks, the Very Important Persons are not satisfied and legal action will now begin against the airline.
Taking a cue from the incident, CNN-IBN debated whether is was time for VIP privileges to end. To debate the question were Congress MP and Spokesperson, Manish Tewari; former Cabinet secretary T S R Subramanian and Managing Editor of Consumer, Sri Ram Khanna.
The politicians seem to be unaware that they are making a laughing stock of themselves when Kalam himself doesn’t seem to mind the check.
Manish Tewari would have none of it. He said Kalam was not reacting because he was a “modest man” and that protocols must be followed under all circumstances.
VIPs: FIRST AMONG EQUALS?
But many would contend that the term VIP is outdated in a democracy. “That one billion people will be frisked and 35 will be exempt was an administrative order to inferior officers of BCAS and normally it is followed. But if tomorrow Bill Clinton were to take the same flight and was frisked, would Americans protest that their former president was violated and sue the Indian government?” Sri Ram Khanna questioned.
Khanna explained the conflict of rules and that the TSA regulations (American) applied to everyone. Therefore, one couldn’t possibly become an exception under American law. “If they don’t frisk him, they’ll be violating American law,” he said.
But is it time the VIP syndrome ended? TSR Subramanian said India’s God-like treatment of politicians was against the tenets of democracy. “It’s absurd. That culture has to go. In this matter, it’s the Government’s failure. They should have come to an agreement consistent with American law and our requirement,” he said.
So the view coming out of the incident is that India’s national honour is so fragile that it rests on an incident where a former President being put through rudimentary security checks.
Tewari took off from Subramanian’s argument, saying he was appalled by it. “Are you trying to say that an American airline on Indian soil is more obligated to follow American instruction rather than Indian instructions?” he questioned.
But politicians seem to be far too prickly about the issue – probably because they comprise the VIP tribe – choosing to call it a matter of national pride. Subramanian suggested the VIP list be cut down drastically.
WANT PRIVILEGES, PAY UP
Speaking of which, it sure sounds a scandal that Robert Vadra (son-in-law of Congress President Sonia Gandhi) is exempt from frisking while the three service chiefs aren’t?
Tewari, who seemed at a loss of words for this one, said it was Government’s call to determination on the SPG protectees. “There’s a certain call that’s been made, let’s live with that. Why make a big issue of it?” he asked.
Khanna made a related point. He said even the colonial British now deploy just one security officer for a foreign dignitary should he require. “Then why should certain people in India get so much security when law and order is in such bad shape? The cost of protection should be debited to the allowances they (VIPs) earn, like common man,” he asserted.
A Delhi High Court judgement of 2008 echoed what many feel. It read, “VIP security is obnoxious. It’s nothing but a status symbol, it’s a scandal that the common man is killed on the street and old people are strangled and these politicians get so much security at taxpayers’ money”.
Sumbramanian quoted an experience of his where he saw a CM of a hill state being ferried in a 35-car cavalcade while Harold Macmillan, the then PM of the UK traveling in the same train as his and no one even bothering to give him a seat. He agreed with Khanna and said VIPs – with the exception of a couple of them – should be treated just like the common man – made to stand in same queues and follow same protocols.
Khanna said politicians who are worth over a couple of crores don’t even need to travel in buses even as Tewari maintained there were MPs who still took public transport. “Most youngsters want to get into politics because of the trappings of power – the salute, the red-light car, the security. If it’s about personal gratification, it’s then not for the people,” he said.
Tewari argued that VIP security was given to people who were important in public domain and were facing threats. But Subramanian said there was a difference between VIP security and VIP privilege. “The political class is the only one that seems exempt from everything. And that’s a blunder made in Constitution itself,” he said.
Khanna suggested if Parliament was unable to legislate such changes, Supreme Court must step in – like it did in the assets case.
Manish Tewari summed up the debate saying that while polity was subject to an exam every five years, it was officers (like Subramanian) who were lording over people after having qualified just one exam at the beginning of their careers. “Even Gandhi was assassinated. If he had some security then, we wouldn’t have lost him so early,” he said,
The debate ended in a deadlock but the SMS voting on the poll indicated that the audience had quite made up its mind. Here are the results:
SMS poll: Is it time for VIP privileges to end?
Yes: 93 pc
No: 7 pc
Carry the debate forward, read Sagarika Ghose’s blog and discuss the issue.