Of Ordinary people and Important Persons

In the past four weeks I have had some interesting experiences that deserve to be noted. The first was after a long flight from UK, deplaning at IGI Airport, New Delhi. The second was travelling by a domestic carrier Economy Class. The third was interacting with a person from my constituency who was suffering from an acute cardiac problem. And finally an impromptu visit to Chicken Inn Restaurant for lunch with a friend. What was common in all these quite mandate events? Of course I was, but that is only coincidental. What was really at issue was India's unique VIP culture. People think very ill of it usually when someone else is the object of attention. But they love it indeed when they can be the beneficiary.

I wrote some months ago about Sifarish culture. The VIP culture is a step beyond, greater sophistication so to speak. The Sifarish culture is an attempt to bye-pass normal entitlements. The VIP culture redefines entitlements. I am not a ˜fundamentalist' of VIP culture but I will confess to having enjoyed it and indeed even missed its benefits when it is interrupted for any reason.

So to return to my four experiences “ first, the airport experience. It is most uncommon for airlines to upgrade passengers at their discretion. The reason could be good business sense, courtesy to a public figure, a personal friend of the crew or management. No body can really complain and it is a practice not unique to India. Then come special clearances or assistance in formalities, all again for the same reasons. Of course off-loading a confirmed passenger is questionable. All airports have special lounges, including VIP lounges. But arriving back in New Delhi on a GOI Diplomatic passport (courtesy extended to a Minister of External Affairs to a former Minister) and being ushered to a separate immigration counter by the ground staff, I heard an inebriated democrat scream from the queue “ Atleast in India learn to take your place! I smiled and simply asked if the gentleman's flight had been usually uncomfortable, even as the immigration Officer stamped my passport.

Curiously, the outspoken democrat felt that paying the VIP abroad was acceptable but not at home. Of course he was not about to find out if I had a different passport or indeed that there was a separate counter. But would such a person think twice if he found himself in a tight spot and knew that a word from someone like the person he questioned would do the trick? I know of virtually no one who would suffer bureaucratic impediment in silence and not appeal for help. Be that as it may, was he right? The second example of travelling economy class is more interesting. As a rule our party sanctions economy class travel. Some people have themselves upgraded and others have upgrading thrust upon them. Truthly, in I have had all three experiences. But at times one does have to travel economy. On one such occasion one gentleman said to me I am delighted that you are travelling economy. He repeated himself several times what was his delight? Did he mean Serve you right? Or was it how wonderful that you are so unassuming? Most of these trips we make for our work. There is a punishing schedule at the other end. At times we return to Delhi to go straight into meetings for which notes have to be prepared in flight. Travelling long distance abroad has even greater stress and demand on one' s stamina and mental alertness. Should one overlook all that to make someone happy that you are also like them. And what about businessman who seek audience with your only to discover you seated a class below them? Is a Club Class / Business Class passenger coming back to the economy class politician, the same thing as G. D. Birla visiting Mahatma Gandhi in his Ashram at Sabarmati? The context has changed, the personalities have changed, attitudes and perceptions have changed. Yet can our behaviour remain unchanged. Would a software expert look credible spinning a Charkha every morning? I do not necessarily have an answer.

Now to the cardiac patient. He was under treatment already but needed urgent attention. And lot of money for an operation. It should have been a long time before he got it together. A word to a doctor had him on the operation table urgently. In this case it was a constituency person but it could have been anyone. Just that it is awful to turn such a persons away from one's door. But how many can actually get to our doors. A few lucky ones. So in a sense being a VIP puts us in a position to save lives. Is that fair? Just because the system does not respond to all the needy, should we hold back from the ones we can help? Possibly the help that some get make the chances of routine patients a little more remote because the capacity is limited. I do not even try to find the answer.

Finally the lunch at Chicken Inn. People say there is no such thing as a free lunch. But that is exactly what I got at Chicken Inn restaurant. It is a favourite of many people in Delhi. I took a friend there who had not heard of it. We received a sumptuous meal and a very warm hospitality. When I asked for the bill the owner smiled and said, no way Sir, we are grateful you came. It wasn't a fat bill. But the gesture seemed wonderful. A person's way of saying they liked you. No fuss. No fanfare. Just a little gesture. What would the airport democrat think of this?

I know that people think the worst about VIPs. In many ways they are right. But many things that might seem offensive may not actually be as negative as they appear. All societies, more so ours are hierarchical. There are icons and natural leaders. It is not necessarily a bad thing to applaud leadership, not as a matter of scycrophacy but in true appreciation. The trouble is when someone demands attention that is not naturally forthcoming. Many people in politics believe that rules do not apply to them, even if this attitude inconveniences other people. But before we criticize others we should look at out own behaviour. It is after all quite sensible that people in glass houses do not throw stones on others.

Salman Khurshid 22/08/2003