High and mightyWe should debate whether we need VIPs flashing their status to our faces every opportunity they find.
Jeevan Ram Shrestha must be kicking himself. Having furiously unleashed the force of the government, the Minister for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation did not even have time to wallow in the satisfaction of having taught a lesson to a lowly security guard for daring to stand up to him. Like many who first came across the shocking news of the guard’s arrest, I was convinced this would end quite badly—for the minister, that is.
And so, it did. In no time, Shrestha found himself in the eye of a storm of criticism that appeared almost physical in its intensity. Besides the issue being raised in Parliament, where a member even called on him to issue a public apology, his action drew the ire of netizens that appears quite unprecedented in scale. One metric is the Facebook entry of Kantipur, where the story had elicited nearly 4,000 comments at the time of writing, with a cursory look showing all to be denouncing the minister.
Given the current climate of antipathy towards politicians, one wonders how tone-deaf the minister could have been to take such an unwarranted action. Granted that this condition of being out of tune with public opinion seems to permeate the government itself, as was evident in the attempt—and subsequent backtrack—to extend the tenure of the House of Representatives. Even so, when a minister pits himself against a guard for doing his duty, despite all his protestations justifying his retaliation, it is always going to be the minister who comes off the worse.
The irony, of course, is that Minister Shrestha is a member of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Socialist), ostensibly an entity whose very raison d’être is to uplift the condition of workers. But anyone who knows how communist parties have operated in the more than 100 years since the first “workers’ paradise” came into existence in the form of the Soviet Union would find it quite normal. Most infamous was how the nomenklatura, as the bigwigs in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union were known, monopolised all the comforts of life to the extent of even having a separate lane for themselves on a major road in Moscow. Thus, a communist minister throwing his weight around would be par for the course.
Just as how the post-Soviet Russian elite have casually adapted to using the special lane themselves, things have remained more or less the same in Nepal as well. That is especially jarring since the current polity claims among its achievements to be the ouster of the monarchy and concomitantly certain prerogatives that were the birthright of the royalty. We have read about or experienced the traffic disruptions every time the President ventures out of her residence in a style reminiscent of the kings of yore.
Security officials, attuned to the earlier ways of royal pomp, could not conceive of operating differently. To their credit, both our Presidents thus far have been known to have expressed contrition over how their travel plans affect ordinary folks but apparently have bowed to the argument of the imperative for security. To even conceive of our heads of the state adopting the ways of the bicycling monarchies of Scandinavia and the Netherlands would not only be idealistic but naïve as well.
The backlash against Shrestha was likely accentuated further because of the prevailing mood in a population feeling quite badly let down by the political class over the past five years and more. But the vehemence of the sentiments against “VIP culture” that has gradually entrenched in our lives is also an indication of how people feel about personages of the state arrogating extraordinary privileges.
Take, for instance, the innumerable characters who zip around with blaring sirens and flashing lights from the pilot cars escorting them around the capital. There seems to be no established protocol on who is allowed to do what. Hence, we see everyone from the Prime Minister down to the chiefs of the army, armed police and police hogging the road, and both lanes at that where they exist, with the accompanying security detail menacingly flagging other users of the road to give way.
Much of what we learn comes from India, including this sense of aggrandisement among state officials that comes with heralding their movement in public thoroughfares. At a time when no more than 1,200 colonial civil servants administered the expanse that was India, including present-day Bangladesh and Pakistan, and with many of them being Britishers, such a distinction perhaps would not have been out of place. Unfortunately, after independence, India continued with the practice, and any and everyone went around with flashing lights. The misuse of this sign of authority had reached such heights that a public interest litigation was filed with the Indian Supreme Court. The top court agreed that the lal batti (red light) (and the sirens that were part and parcel) was a “menace to society”. “How can citizens be treated differently?” the court asked and ordered the government to rectify the situation immediately.
Despite the court order, it took another four years before the Indian government began taking action. But, when it did, the symbols that were “ridiculous and synonymous with power”, as the Indian court put it, were also out. Apparently, the Ministry of Roads argued for retaining the lights for five offices—President, Vice-President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice of India, and Speaker of Lower House of Parliament—but the proposal was shot down. Leading by example on his own court’s order, the Chief Justice removed the red light from his vehicle long before the deadline.
“How can citizens be treated differently?” is a question we would like to pose our own authorities. Perhaps it is time we learnt from India again. We all know that the number of security personnel assigned to any one individual is directly linked to that person’s proximity to the high and mighty of the land. But is there any kind of professional threat assessment conducted periodically to determine who gets the right to shoo the public from their path?
Given human nature, the threat of violence is everywhere, and there are crackpots who are capable of anything. Yet I cannot imagine there being a physical threat to anyone in Nepal, with the exception perhaps of Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’. And that, too, for having led the Maoists and their violent insurgency from the very beginning, not because he is a former prime minister.
We, as a society, should start questioning whether we need VIPs flashing their status to our faces every opportunity they find. Granted, doing away with sirens and lights will not make much of a dent on the VIP culture. It would be a good way to start, though.