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HAS MR MODI SUCCEEDED IN ERADICATING CONGRESS VVIP CULTURE?

In the light of a stadium being emptied of sportspersons practicing (and God only knows how sportsmen and women in India, other than cricketers, have to slog, with little funding and Media interest), when a top bureaucrat wanted to walk his dog, it is necessary AGAIN to take a look at Indian VVIP culture, which is an Indian National Congress legacy. Here is my take:

As in the Soviet Union, the Congress – and Nehru in particular - compensated the low salaries of politicians, bureaucrats, police, by giving them disproportionate privileges. The tragic assassination of Indira Gandhi, and later of her son, Rajiv, worsened this VVIP culture by adding security cover as an extra symbol of power. We know how much discomfort this VVIP culture has caused to the common man everywhere and how it also triggered huge waves of corruption, as politicians, bureaucrats and police were not made accountable.

 

With the advent of the @BJP4India, everyone had high hopes that this VVIP culture would be slowly dismantled, as many of the new rulers of India, came from the rank of the RSS, which picks up its cadres from the common people and makes sure they stay in touch with this very strata of Indian society, that forms the BJP’s main electoral constituency. Indeed, in the first two years, the new Prime Minister, Mr Narendra Modi, tried to extricate himself from the straightjacket of VVIP culture, by attempting to minimize the security around him, drive to the airport without blocking all the roads and generally reach out to people, shake hands etc. He also instructed his ministers, as he had done in Gujarat, to have daily open durbars, where ordinary folks could meet the ministers. I remember both in Gujarat and in the first years in Delhi, seeing ministers, who sat in ordinary rooms, with only one secretary taking notes, and in front of him or her, rows of plastic chairs, where one sat till one’s turn came. It was simple, effective and made you love the system of democracy.

 

But this welcome change was beaten by two factors, one, the Indian bureaucracy and two, the Nehruvian system. The Indian bureaucracy remains the ultimate power in India, never affected by change of governments and time. It has a Nehruvian bend of mind, even at the highest level (there are have exceptions to the rule: Nripendra Mishra, who unfortunately retired; the present Home Secretary & quite a few high level officials in the Home Ministry), thinks it knows it all and wants to control everything. Once we did a presentation of the Shivaji Maharaj Museum of Indian History, Pune, to then Maharashtra CM, Fadvanis. He was genuinely enthused by the project and immediately allotted one crore of the CM Fund. However his bureaucrats in the Culture wing, (who never even bothered to visit thje Museum which is unique and has 20 pavilions) argued that we were not a real ‘artifacts’ Museum and we never got the money. So much for the power of the politicians… Much of the middle and lower bureaucracy did not like Mr Modi’s reforms, which were attempting to bypass them to reach to the common people. So they put brakes on them: the Swachh Bharat project for instance, has definitely petered down in the South: Bangalore or Pondicherry,  are as dirty as ever, if not more. But it is in the domain of finance that bureaucracy showed its real power : they resisted the visionary reforms of Mr Modi and today corruption – at least at the lower levels – is as vibrant as ever.

 

The Congress legacy in terms of access to VVIPS, has also survived, because of the number of persons surrounding VVIPS: a minister has at least four or five private or personal secretaries (PA & PS), who themselves have undersecretaries, who themselves have lower bureaucrats at their beck and call, who themselves have peons, switchboard operators etc. These people would have, for the most, become irrelevant if Mr Modi had succeeded in bypassing them. So they did not allow it and today, as it was in the time of Congress (I would say even more, now, as bureaucracy has tripled in numbers since I was an active journalist), it is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE to get through to a Minister, even if you have genuine work. You have to pass through at least five layers of bureaucrats, before he or she sees your request. So only the old tool of access remains the same: CONNECTIONS – if you know someone, who knows someone, and that someone has some clout, you will be able to reach to one of the PA’s and PS directly. But even then, it can be difficult (ask me, I have been trying for three months to meet Amit Shah, whom I defended against the advice of my peers, during the Godhra riots). I have called this the ‘Curse of Delhi’.

 

I remember one time, a very high-level member of Mr Modi’s Govt, whom I will not name here, agreed to inaugurate our Shivaraj Museum of Indian History exhibition in Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Centre for Arts on the two brothers Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb (the idea was to how show how the former was a Sufi scholar, who thought Islam was inspired by the Upanishads (which he had translated from Sanskrit to Farsi), while his brother was a monster who imprisoned his father and sons, beheaded his brother and razed thousands of temples). First, the VP’s entourage told us that it would be better to show only the exhibition on Dara Shikoh – not on Aurangzeb - which we reluctantly agreed. Then, though it was only a small event, they gave us a set of strict security guidelines (nobody to enter the room where he will freshen up for 24 hours, how to get up when he entered, how to greet him etc.). When the VVIP came, I asked him  after the event, as I met him before and because I knew he came from the RSS, why such strict rules. He answered that in terms of security and protocol, there is a ‘Blue Book’ made by the Congress on VVIP movement, security, protocol etc,  and that it would require a new legislation and a sitting of parliament to change it. I met him again later at one of the World Hindu Conferences in Chicago and it seemed to me that he had well and happily settled in this VVIIP straightjacket, as most of Mr Modi’s Governments ministers have today, except a few like Mr Gadkari Mrs Sitharaman, or Mr Ajit Doval, who remain approachable. In defense of politicians and bureaucrats, there are so many people in India, that they would be overwhelmed if access to them was not restricted.

 

My conclusion: in spite of laudable efforts on the part of India’s Prime Minister, Narendra  Modi, the VVIP culture has survived the change of Government and still plagues India. It would need a revolution, such as the shifting of India’s capital to a more central place, like Indore, Ujain, Pune or Nagpur (which I thought Mr Modi would do) to break the backbone of VVIP culture (all the top VIP’s are in Delhi), Media (which would have to relocate,) politicians, (for whom Delhi is the Mecca), the diplomats (who would not know what to do with themselves in their fortified palaces of Shanti path) and India’s bloated, arrogant and sometimes corrupt bureaucracy (half of whom would become irrelevant)

 

Francois Gautier

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