India's rich and powerful are known to hanker for multiple symbols of
power, be it flashing red lights on cars, armed bodyguards, officially
allotted big bungalows in the prime New Delhi area or exclusion from
airport security frisking. The list goes on.
So many important people living or dead and their families have insisted
on so many roads being named after them that the government has run out
of venues. The number of new and unnamed roads, streets, paths,
highways, avenues and lanes isn't growing fast enough to keep up with
the demand. Inundated by requests and unable to handle the volume, the
government now has decided that henceforth trees will be tagged after
those who "deserve" the honor.
Of course India is hardly the
only country to suffer from the syndrome. Many a motorist passing
through Sacramento, California, for instance, can be forgiven by
wondering what Carleton E. Forbes did to get an expressway named for
him. But given Delhi's rich history, the important roads are taken by
kings of the past such as Lodhi, Akbar, Shah Jahan, Prithvi Raj and
Aurganzeb. The British Raj and others connected to the country's
colonial past still have their names on many of them.
and big-shot leaders have a monopoly on the even bigger structures —
the father-daughter prime minister combination have a monopoly on the
Indira Gandhi International Airport and the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium.
New Delhi's main market and business area has been re-named after former
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, Nehru's grandson, who was assassinated in
Lanes and by-lanes are named for lesser leaders such as
Madhavrao Scindia, Rajesh Pilot and more. The adjoining state of
Haryana has several parks named after Devi Lal, a former Deputy Prime
Minister who hailed from the state.
It goes to the credit of
the Delhi government that it has managed to deal with a situation that
was turning into a major concern and an irritant. The tree solution also
helps given that important roads in the city are lined with trees on
both sides as the original planners had envisaged.
architect Edwin Lutyens, who laid out the imperial capital in 1911 and
designed the Rashtrapati Bhawan, the President's house, as well as
Parliament House, went to great pains to ensure that all of the main
avenues in New Delhi were lined with trees, giving the government a
seemingly inexhaustible supply of Laburnams, Neems, Peepals, Audumbers
and Banyans, with broad canopies that date back generations. It will
surely take a while for a tree list of important people to be exhausted
unless rapacious felling for development leads to more and more barren
land, as has happened in many areas.
Still, one problem solved
doesn't mean that there aren't others. Indeed, there are many more.
There are pressures to turn prime and big bungalows where a leader or
minister might have stayed during his or her tenure in office into
museums where the rest of the family can also conveniently continue to
stay at the taxpayer's expense.
Given the real estate crunch
and high rents, sometimes former members of parliament, ministers,
retired officials and various other minor satraps have to be physically
evicted along with their belongings from their comfortable living
quarters. Bureaucrats of every state are in a constant wrangle for dual
postings to retain almost-free official apartments in the national
Although quite a bit of the Indian population is
unaccounted for due to the absence of adequate data, there exists a
detailed official list of perks that an ex-incumbent is eligible to –
these include former prime ministers, senior police officials, ministers
The eligibilities keep rising even as current office
holders make sure that they retain as much of the perquisites as
possible after they exit from government. These can range from personal
staff to free airline or rail tickets or telephone connections.
hot tag is threat perception, especially from known terror groups such
as al-Qaeda or Lashkar-e-Toiba, actual or imagined. The highest Z-plus
category accompanies the star label Very Very Important Person (VVIP),
which translates into free government cars, armed and trained commandoes
as bodyguards and possibly a free house in New Delhi.
the commandos mostly function as bouncers to fend off private citizens
while the escort vehicles, fitted with flashing red lights and sirens,
specialize in jumping traffic lights and shooing away nearby vehicles.
Anybody driving in Delhi can vouch for this nuisance done in the name of
There are other seemingly minor perks that the
privileged also seek. Even though foreign security procedures are more
difficult to tamper with, the list of those eligible to forego domestic
airport checks has been drastically the amended to suit individual
interests in the game of political patronage, where outward show of
power matters a bit.
In the 1980s, only five individual classes
were exempted from search: the president, vice president, prime
minister, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, speaker of the Lok
Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament, and state governors. Today the
list has been expanded to include cabinet ministers, ministers of state,
bureaucrats and sundry others with access to the powers-that-be.
Ordinary passengers, forced to stand in line for 90 minutes to go
through security procedures, can only clench their teeth in anger as
legions of VVIPs saunter up to the desk with only minutes to go before
Incumbents in power like to use their influence to
create as many symbols of might and muscle around them as possible.
Those without the wherewithal hanker for them and seek to muscle their
way into privilege irrespective.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org