Friday, January 17, 2014

India's VIP culture

Anyone who spends some time in India realizes the existence of "VIP" (Very Important Person) culture.  Any public building or piece of infrastructure, be it airports, train stations, roads, toll booths, stadiums, auditoriums, courts, hospitals, colleges, has special provisions for these "VIP"s.

VIPs are almost always political leaders or high-ranking government or judicial officers.  Occasionally they can also be powerful journalists, well-connected "artists" or famous sports-persons.

Being a VIP gets one special treatment.  Therefore it is very important to make it obvious to others that one is a VIP.  To have to explain that one is a high-ranking officer might feel very embarrassing, so symbols have been evolved to show one's status.  Single-digit vehicle number plates, white ambassadors or imported SUVs, a beacon light on top of one's vehicle, armed guards, escorting vehicles, ...

Having lived in USA for a number of years, I cannot remember even once seeing a beacon on top of anything except emergency vehicles.  Neither have I ever seen, in the US, a "VIP" being escorted by pilot vehicles.  There are traffic jams in many urban regions in the US, and if everybody is delayed, so is a VIP, ostensibly.

Not so in India.  In India, VIP vehicles have a higher priority than anything else.  If one manages to get in their way, one runs the risks of getting run over, thrashed by the armed guards, or having one's vehicle damaged.

The reasoning that Indian VIPs need escorts and beacons to clear away traffic so that they can save time usually extends to running through red lights and breaking the speed limits with impunity.  No traffic policeman dares to challan/ticket these taxpayer-funded thugs.  Interestingly, these days single-digit vehicle license plates are auctioned by the state authorities.  If a private individual shows a "0001" on his car, it signals to everybody else that either this is a VIP, or someone who could afford to spend many lakhs of rupees to purchase this license plate.  In either case, not someone to be messed around with.

Time is of import not just to these politicians and administrators.  Business leaders, doctors or even a courier delivery person are all running against the clock.  And their delay might turn out to be very expensive to someone who is waiting for them.  A surgeon or a CEO gets to wait in the traffic, so why can't a politician?

I believe that behind all the excuses, the VIP culture is an exercise in status and power.

There have been many court judgments in India limiting the number of security guards or the use of beacons, but to little effect.  Judges themselves consider themselves to be VIPs and are loath to give up their guards and beacons.

In my opinion, coming across a VIP in India is a humiliating experience for the average citizen.  It makes us lose faith in whatever little equality the constitution of the country promises.  On the other hand, a non-VIP is not respected by the illiterati.  In the present context, if a political leader comes without guards, he is considered a minor player and doesn't get any regard.

I don't think the VIPs will give up their symbols, or what the symbols result in, on their own.  And the VIPs have guns and goons on their side.  The judges of the high courts might pronounce judgments but they consider themselves VIPs as well.

What is a likely solution?

1 comment:

Prashanth Krishnamurthy said...

The VIP culture may be a result of the conditioning we receive to "respect" people, almost tending to devotion. You can see this in a coterie of people around people in power, or famous.
Combine this with the historic oppression that induces a feeling of superiority/inferiority amongst the classes, and you have the perfect ingredient for the aforesaid culture.

Conditioning to lessen this devotion instinct will be the key. But this requires thinking in terms of equality amongst the better equals.