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Narendra Modi must fight the mindset that encourages VIP culture, removing red beacons means nothing

Narendra Modi is right, but doing away with red beacons does not mean the end of the VIP culture. Rest assured, the culture won’t disappear in a hurry. Curiously, it is not because of the fierce desire of the so-called important people to hold on to their status and privilege. It is because the culture remains deep in the psyche of our society, so deep that if there are no VIPs, we would create them.

It is somewhat like the idea of God, we simply cannot do without it.

The prime minister can very well say "every person is important" and the lal batti should vanish from minds too, not only from vehicles, but it is difficult to see it working that simply on the ground. We would still have VIPs around, treated as superior to other human beings and throwing their weight around. A legislator or a bureaucrat or even a policeman would still be as important as always, red beacon or not. There would be preferential treatment for them.

Blame it on our social or psychological conditioning. We are used to treating offices as repositories of power, not as stations of public service. The holder of an office is respected more for the presumed power he wields than how competent he is at delivering what he is paid for. And what’s power if it is not manifest in official and private conduct? So we have clerks playing the lord of the files, junior officials treating ordinary people with disdain and everyone in office treating everyone else as inferior. It also breeds corruption – it is just another form of misuse of power. This is not about government offices only, private organisations are afflicted by the same malaise too.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

This is a perversion of the idea of office. But let’s be honest. In our society office is a marker of social status, the great differentiator between ordinary and extraordinary mortals. Reaching there is an amazing feat in itself. Privileges, of course, follow as entitlements. We hardly think beyond that. That is perhaps one big reason why competence at job becomes an inferior consideration to the glow of office in India. With status comes signaling. That is why important people must not arrive or pass by unheralded. The red beacon is only one way of signaling.

The ordinary Indian, as Modi says, is special and must feel so. But how do we get there without a change in the social mindset? It is not easy. But one thing he can focus on is doing away with privileges – and the arrogance that office brings. To begin with, why must senior officers have orderlies at home? It is being done away with gradually but the practice must go in all forms. Why allow government vehicles to be used for private purposes? Why give special treatment to them when they attend functions or places of importance in private capacity? Why must some of them enjoy a sprawling residential accommodation? And why is there security arrangement for undeserving people? Having armed security personnel around has become more of a status symbol than a genuine need for many.

Take away the privileges and egos built around offices would collapse.

Again, if the prime minister wants to empower the common man vis-à-vis the important persons, he has to bring in a culture where the former can put questions to and demand answers from the latter. It does not matter whether it is a political representative or government official, a mechanism has to be in place to make them accountable to the public. The process would bring down the sense of awe and fear among common people for important people.

Official processes are intimidating in general. They are often complex and beyond the comprehension of the common man in the village. This contributes to the sense of dread that the latter have for offices and incumbents. Modi would actually deliver a big blow to the VIP culture if he demystifies offices for the common man. Removing red beacons sounds good to the ears but it actually means nothing. The attack on the VIP culture must be a comprehensive one; it has to start with changing the mindset that promotes such culture.


Published Date: May 02, 2017 12:59 PM | Updated Date: May 02, 2017 12:59 PM

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