No VIPs – Time For An Equality Of Citizens Act

Time For Equality The chiefs of the 3 armed forces were recently exempted from security checks at airports. In the build up to this decision, you got quotes like “It is a shame that India cannot accord a small privilege for those who guard the country”. Since anything related to the forces always gets linked to patriotism and national pride, so naturally references to the same were made from all corners. Finally the government gave in and extended the privilege of exemptions from security checks. The minister added that it was “absolutely appropriate” that the people who defended the country’s borders should not go through the security check exercise. So ended the matter. The VIP list for exemptions got a little longer for another service. “No big deal. All’s well that ends well. Right?”

Not really. The basic premise for this or any VIP privilege is that a certain person’s time or pride is more important than that of ordinary citizens like you and me. This goes completely against my understanding of democracy and people’s rule. VIP privileges for a chosen few cannot be a part of a democracy. It’s understandable if a dictator is a VIP, but in democratic India, no minister, politician, military officer or even the Prime Minister can be a VIP. He is just another citizen of India chosen to lead and not to rule. Privileges to bypass the queue is just one aspect of the mammoth VIP baggage that the nation carries. In a supposed equitable society, the time and pride of my cook, driver, my boss or the Prime Minister of India should have the same value, at least on paper. There cannot be a government sanction for discrimination.

Why should ordinary folk stand in serpentine queues at security checks, immigration and a million other places, while bureaucrats, ministers and sundry zoom past through special lines? Why does a government sticker on a vehicle exempt it from paying road tolls and gets it through the special VIP lane while you and me wait for our turn to pay the government? Why can VIP families get tickets on any mode of transport at the last minute while the ordinary citizen has to book months in advance? I can go on and on about the privileges enjoyed by VIPs while the masses suffer. The fact is that we have got used to treating our administrators and ministers as our rulers and masters. If we behave like subjects we are going to get pushed around.

When a person spends his own money to get ahead in a line, our law calls it a bribe and labels the person a criminal. But on the other hand we sanction line jumping and special privileges for all kinds of public servants. Isn’t that unfair? It seems like the only way to be special in India is to grab a government chair by hook or crook. Some might argue that these people are doing public service and so are special. Although “they are doing their job” is closer to the truth, even if we assume that they are doing public service, they still cannot get the liberty to bypass the law applicable to other mortals. Thinking of it, if in reality they are servants of the society, they should volunteer to be the last ones in the queue.

Even a Narayan Murthy or a Ratan Tata traveling to seal a deal that will get employment to 1000s in India has to stand in queues and suffer multiple security checks. I have even seen the CEO of one of the biggest software companies in the world have to push and shove his way through chaotic security checks at Mumbai following the liquid bomb scare a few years back. So if one is to think that important people are VIPs, that isn’t true. I anyway am not asking for exemptions for any businessmen but for equity.

Being a VIP is an addiction, a bad habit that does not go away. Once you get used to always getting preferential treatment, you not only misuse it but also do anything required to keep it. The desire to get continued VIP treatment is an important reason why politicians will do anything to grab and keep power.

Also once we start applying the “we guard the borders” or “we are public servants” logic to justify preferential treatment, there’s just no end to it. By that logic, the army men who park in “no parking” zone and expect special treatment at railway stations and airports are also justified.

Haven’t we heard in hundreds of speeches that the law is equal for all? So it’s a bit disappointing that none of our VIPs volunteer to not use VIP privileges. Isn’t there far more dignity and pride in being an important man and yet not wanting to misuse that importance. Also if politicians stop being VIPs, we would certainly see a reduction in the mistrust and dislike for politicians that we see amongst the masses today. If I am not mistaken, a certain Mr. Gandhi spent his life living like the common man. A true nationalist / democrat must get in line along with his countrymen.

Activists across India toiled hard for many years to get the ordinary Indian the Right To Information. I think it’s time we started work on an Equality Of Citizens Act.

(Published as “Time For Real Equality” in my fortnightly column for the Maharashtra Herald)