In India everyone's a VIP

Last updated 05:00 28/03/2014

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 A prominent Indian lawyer was stuck in traffic for nearly two hours, waiting for dozens of VIP motorcades to sail by on their way to a politician's funeral. If he ever got out of the jam, Harish Salve vowed, he would do something about a phenomenon that has spun out of control.

In India these days, everybody is a VIP (or, if you're lucky, a VVIP).

Politicians and bureaucrats have privileges that civil servants in other countries can only dream of: private lounges and ticket counters at railways and airports and seats in roped-off sections at cricket matches and concerts. Political figures travel in motorcades of dozens of vehicles. For those who get in scrapes with the law - a surprisingly high number - there are even VIP jail cells.

Now the system of privileges that dates to British rule is under attack, with opponents calling it an insult to Indian democracy. Salve is leading the charge, targeting the growing number of people travelling in motorcades with flashing red lights. As a result, India's Supreme Court banned the use of the motorcades late last year for all but top officials, calling them "an antithesis of the concept of a republic." Next month, the court is expected to weigh which "high dignitaries" can use them.

 "Cavalcades carrying chief ministers and ministers block roads and run riot," Salve said in an interview. "The armed guards wave their automatic weapons at traffic. It must be stopped."

There is a growing backlash against such practices from members of the country's expanding middle class, who are moving beyond the constraints of India's ancient caste system and increasingly embracing the values of a meritocracy, according to Baijayant Panda, a member of Parliament who has spoken out against the VIP culture

"You hear outrage these days when we hear about the abuse of elite privileges," Panda said. "It's happening more and more now."

Yet, despite the limits placed on motorcades by the country's high court in December, it has been difficult to get them off the roads. When the matter came up in the state assembly in the Indian-held territory of Jammu and Kashmir last month, the proceedings dissolved into chaos and several members staged a walkout.

 "There has been a lot of reluctance to give up these red lights," said Omar Abdullah, the state's chief minister, a position akin to that of a governor in the United States. Over the years, Abdullah said, abuse of the lights has become widespread. 

 "Anybody who could afford to buy one from the market stuck it on their car," he said. "People who had long retired from service were continuing to use them."

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 The proliferation of speeding motorcades has raised concerns about the waste of public money and about the use of police to guard the convoys. A Brookings Institution study found that only a third of Delhi's 84,000 officers are doing police work, with the rest providing protection to politicians, diplomats and other VIPs. In one state, Salve said, police officers continue to guard a dignitary who was awarded security protection by the British more than 60 years ago.

Parkash Singh Badal, the chief minister of the northern state of Punjab, flies his family around in private helicopters at taxpayer expense and has a motorcade that is 32 vehicles long, activists say. His son, who happens to be deputy chief minister of the state, has an entourage that is almost as large.

"In Punjab, the lifestyle of the chief minister is like a maharajah," said Dinesh Chadha, an activist who has filed right-to-information requests in an effort to expose the fuel costs of the chief minister's travel.

Badal and his son spent $2.4 million on gas for their motorcades in the past 1 1/2 years, Chadha found, at a time when the state is mired in debt and can barely pay its employees. The amount of money they spend on travel and security is "absolutely wrong," the activist said.

 A spokesman for the Badals defended the expenditures, noting that Punjab has been a haven for terrorists in the past and saying that the chief minister has received death threats.               

 The anti-VIP movement has gained momentum in the past year with the emergence of the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or the Common Man Party. It asked its candidates to sign a pledge not to use red-light motorcades, accept security details or live in government-allotted bungalows.

  The bungalows are emblematic of the VIP culture: There are about 2,000 of the airy homes in an area designed for British and Indian officers by the architect Edwin Lutyens in the center of the Indian capital. They are provided to government officials and politicians in a murky, patronage-plagued system.

  Some of the politicians continue to live in the bungalows for nominal rent long after their terms end. Sometimes their families hang on to the bungalows even after the politicians die.

 Over-the-top renovations of the historic buildings are common; one politician sliced open the roof of one structureto install a mini-replica of I.M.Pei's glass pyramid from the Louvre.

 The leader of the AAP, Arvind Kejriwal, won fans this year by turning down one of the bungalows offered to him and opting for more modest accommodation. He caused a stir on a recent campaign swing in Mumbai by taking a common auto-rickshaw from the airport.

At airports, regular folk still stand in security lines next to large posted signs listing the VIPs exempt from the indignity of frisking, including the prime minister, former presidents and the Dalai Lama. Members of Parliament have long received special treatment from the government carrier, Air India, which used to hold flights for high-level officials who were running late. But when an internal government memo that appeared to show politicians seeking perks such as free refreshments from the country's private airlines surfaced this year, the nightly talk shows went ballistic. A Twitter hashtag appeared: #flyingmaharajas.

 Panda, the lawmaker, says public opinion seems to be shifting against the VIPs.

 "I've seen politicians and other public figures throw tantrums at airport security, and people in line used to look at them in bemusement," Panda said. "Nowadays people are reacting and objecting. They say, 'You better stand in line.' Clearly rebellion is brewing, and it's a good thing."

But others don't see much of a shift in attitude.

"Maybe over time change will happen," said Parmajit Singh, 50, who was sipping chai outside his hardware store in Delhi on a recent sunny afternoon. It still rankles when he is forced to shutter his shop for two to three hours to allow a motorcade to pass by, or when some bigwig pushes ahead of him in line at the doctor's office.

"We're all Indians," Singh said. "There should be no disparity."


-Washington Post/Bloomberg

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