THEY zip through toll plazas in dedicated lanes. They enjoy special access to tickets on overcrowded trains. And they’re notorious for showing up late to commercial flights, making regular passengers wait. Being an Indian government official of even moderate standing carries seemingly endless perks and privileges. But no symbol of India’s “VIP culture” is as ubiquitous — or maddening — as the flashing red light. Restricted in Western countries to police cars, fire engines and ambulances, the red beacons are a favourite bauble of Indian officialdom, used by dozens of categories of officeholders and dignitaries to bypass the country’s notorious traffic jams.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week banned non-emergency vehicles from firing up the flashing lights, striking a blow against a feudal official culture in which India’s masses hew to countless rules while the powerful write their own. “These symbols are out of touch with the spirit of new India,” Modi tweeted. The lal batti (red light), is an all-too-familiar irritation on the clogged roads of New Delhi or Mumbai, where motorists often find themselves stuck in neutral for no reason or ordered to pull over by a police officer for several minutes — only to see a shiny car whiz past with the flashing red, blue or amber light affixed to its roof.
Current Indian government rules spell out more than 40 categories of dignitaries who are entitled to use different types and colours of beacons, from the president and prime minister down to state-level legislators and university vice chancellors. Although to be used only in discharging government duties, the detachable lights have been spotted on the cars of officials’ relatives. In 2013, India’s Supreme Court — whose justices also were entitled to the beacons — complained that they were being given to “all and sundry” officials, even heads of village-level governments.
For Modi’s conservative government, which is cosy with big business and has loosened restrictions on corporate political donations, banning the lal batti was an easy populist move. Praising the decision, the Indian Express newspaper described the red light as an “obscene” vestige of British rule that “perpetuated, in democratic India, the segregation of the ruler and the ruled, which was a hallmark of colonial power.” Several officials made a show of removing the lights from their cars after the government order. But eliminating the beacons will not end a VIP culture that manifests itself in countless ways in a country of 1.3 billion people, where everyone is looking for a way to rise above the crowds, hassles and endless red tape.
Passengers on state-run Air India, which often carries government officials, regularly complain of VIPs behaving badly. Last month, Ravindra Gaikwad, a legislator in Mumbai, assaulted an Air India employee for giving him an economy-class ticket on a two-hour commercial flight to New Delhi. The aircraft did not have a business-class cabin. Gaikwad later boasted that he had slapped the employee with his slipper 25 times. Air India banned him from its aircraft for several days before the government ordered the company to allow him to fly again.
In June 2015, an Air India flight from Mumbai to New York was delayed for more than 90 minutes, reportedly because a member of a government delegation forgot to bring his US visa. Officials denied the mistake, blaming technical reasons for the delay. In July 2015, M.K. Stalin, a politician in the southern city of Chennai, formerly Madras, marred the opening of a new metro line by slapping a passenger who refused to make way. As the video went viral, Stalin said the contact was “unintentional.”
Indian law allows more than 30 categories of VIPs to bypass pre-flight security checks at commercial airports. For years, those lucky dozens included a businessman whose main qualification was that he married into India’s most famous political family. Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi, was the only person on the “no-frisk” list who was mentioned by name, which only made his inclusion all the more galling to most Indians. That changed in 2015, when Modi’s government amended the list and dropped Vadra — although he is still exempt when travelling with his wife, who is on a list of people granted special protection.
—Courtesy: Los Angeles Times