Out of the numerous privileges that India’s political and administrative elite has claimed for itself, none was more coveted than the flashing red light atop their cars. The screaming sirens and red beacons made policemen jump to attention, halt traffic and wave VIP vehicles through crowded roads and red lights — sometimes even as ambulances waited — raising public ire.
Now, this most visible symbol of India’s “VIP culture” is being dismantled, much to the delight of ordinary citizens.
Saying that every Indian is a VIP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has banned the use of the red light or “lal batti,” long a symbol of power and status. Starting May 1 only emergency services such as ambulances and fire engines will use blue lights.
The step comes three years after the Supreme Court called the widespread use of red lights “reflective of the Raj [British rule] mentality and the antithesis of the concept of a Republic.” The court was responding to a petition questioning why a host of public officials were flashing the lights.
“These symbols are out of touch with the spirit of new India,” Modi tweeted after the decision was announced.
The step has been widely welcomed as putting an end to a practice that sets India’s rulers “aristocratically apart” from the public.
“Why should one class of people be above others or made to feel that they are more equal than us?” questions New Delhi resident, Ratna Dehadrai, who has often fumed in traffic jams created by VIP cars.
However many point out that doing away with the red light targets no more than an outer symbol in a country where the ruling elite is probably the most entitled among the world’s major democracies.
“We have not got rid of feudalism while modern democracy has come,” says independent political analyst Neerja Chowdhury in New Delhi. “Entitlement — the whole concept has deepened rather than getting diluted.”
She recalls the excitement of a young lawmaker when he was appointed a minister. “What was he excited about? He said ‘my car will now have a “laal batti.’ It symbolized power, it symbolized being recognized within your peer group, within society.”
Although he and other politicians and officials may get accustomed to battling horrendous traffic jams like the rest of the country, they will continue to enjoy a host of privileges that give them priority access to every kind of public service from roads and airports to schools.
They jump airport queues, go past security checks, enjoy special access to tickets on overcrowded trains and get priority treatment in government hospitals. Top ministers live in sprawling, British-era colonial bungalows in the heart of New Delhi with a retinue of gun-toting guards that not only accompany them everywhere, but sometimes also their spouses on shopping trips.
But what has truly raised public wrath is a “VIP” mindset that sees some behaving as a law unto themselves.
They have been in the news for holding up commercial flights because they arrived late.
Last month, a member of parliament from the regional Shiv Sena party, Ravindra Gaikwad, hit the headlines when he not only struck a 62-year-old Air India employee, but later unrepentently proclaimed that he slapped him with his slipper 25 times. Why? He was in a rage about not getting a business class seat on an economy-only class flight.
Commercial airlines banned him from flying, but were persuaded by the government to lift the ban after a few days. A skeptical public, used to politicians getting away with such misdemeanors, was not surprised.
Many columnists and opinion makers say that such incidents are deepening a disconnect between politicians and voters and hope that Modi will target other perks of power that Indian public servants enjoy.
After the red light reform was announced, The Times of India noted in an editorial that a message needs to go out up and down the government.
“You are not a superior being. Stand in queues, carry your own baggage, don’t throw tantrums at toll plazas or manhandle airline workers, don’t lord it over the people you are paid to serve.”
That truly reflects public sentiment, but it may take years to happen.