Some are more equal than others

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 25 July 2009

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My respect for former President Dr Kalam has gone up after he,almost alone,refused to object after being frisked by an airline. But the furore it created was inevitable. The outrage over his frisking has a deep rooted connection with a still-fragile post-colonial mindset: the fact that the airline was an American one — cue for sharp intake of breath  made it that much worse. Nevertheless,despite many Indians gossamer-thin skin at any real or perceived slight by foreigners,this is a good opportunity to reexamine our own assumptions about special privileges.

After initially holding firm that it was only abiding by the US Transport Security Administration (TSA) rules,which do not recognise an Indian ex-President as exempt from frisking,the airline is subsequently reported to have apologised. This was entirely predictable,not just because there is an Indian law exempting ex-Presidents from security checks,but also because the civil aviation minister personally assured Parliament that the recalcitrant airline would be brought to book.

That is as it should be. That is,Indian laws and rules should be taken seriously by any entity operating in India. But my cavil is with the law itself. Why should an ever expanding list of VIPs be exempt from security checks at the airport? Why should we still have a feudal mindset that our ruling elite be treated differently from the average citizen?

It has sometimes been argued that this mindset,more than just being a feudal relic,is also specifically a third world mindset. The logic goes that third world countries are only tolerable (to the elite) when there are special privileges to shield them from the rigours of everyday life in such countries. It is a vestige of twentieth century India that still lingers on even as the country itself is trying to come to grips with the kind of mindset that is more suited for an emerging twenty-first century power.

When India became independent after centuries of foreign domination,it was but natural that the nation was insecure about itself,not confident of competing with the world. This bruised self-esteem,combined with the power of democracy,unleashed forces hitherto unknown. Populism,which was fairly useless until independence,became a potent force for acquiring and retaining power. Policies to facilitate real development were subjugated to those that played to the gallery.

India settled into a cycle of low growth,low investment,and slow reduction of poverty that was far from ideal for the aam aadmi,but had little downside for the elite. Particularly during the sixties through the early nineties,the Indian ruling cabal of netas,babus and well-connected businessmen developed a comfortable if incestuous formula for mutual gratification. And special privileges were a fundamental part of that formula.

Those special privileges ranged from the substantive to the frivolous. They included special access to otherwise restricted goodies , think imported luxury cars, for businessmen. Netas and babus got to live in heritage buildings in areas that were exempt from power cuts,and drive in ubiquitous Ambassador cars with beacon lights. And they never had to stand in line for anything.

This clubby existence reinforced that feudal,third world mindset. Worries about bijli,sadak,pani were not top-of-the-mind,since,indeed,those were not the hardships to which netas and babus could relate. The hardships with which they could relate all had to do with the pecking order: the correct colour of beacon light for their car,the higher level of security detail,arrangements to bypass queues of any kind.

Things have been changing,just not fast enough. Democracy has flourished to an extent that voters — earlier content with identity politics and willing to buy into populist slogans — are increasingly rewarding development. Liberalisation and economic growth have made available to the hoi polloi what earlier only the exalted could have. For instance,when was the last time you needed a neta or a babu’s clout to get a same-day phone connection? And this has started impacting cultural mores as well: an entire generation of Indians has now grown up without a core belief that a bribe was necessary to get that phone connection.

This kind of basic belief system that bribes or special privileges are unnecessary to get access to a wide array of daily needs and wants  is essential for us to transition to a first world mindset. For that to happen,there are still large swathes of our economy that need to be unshackled from sixties and seventies-style governance,which fosters shortages and a patronage system. An India where the average citizen can get access to education,health,jobs and quick legal redress without patronage or bribes , all possible in our lifetimes with sensible policymaking will be a country that will have no room left for a feudal or third world mindset.

In the meantime,it is only when most of the ruling elite are not exempt from airport security checks that there will be greater urgency to reform and streamline it. Our long list of those exempted should be trimmed down,like most first world countries,to a very,very short list. The ideal list would exempt only the serving President and heads of each pillar of the Constitution: the executive (the prime minister),judicial (the chief justice),and legislative (the vice president and the speaker). Until that happens,we must applaud the likes of Dr Kalam who don’t bother about such petty privileges.