So it turns out that one of the most encouraging new trends that we saw this week, was actually a case of happenstance. When President Pranab Mukherjee’s entourage planned his visit to a Bihar university, they sent a letter, which insiders say listed out the standard protocol — how he should be received and among other things how he should be addressed. It wasn’t a letter specially dictated by the President but perhaps, because there was a buzz about a Presidential visit after a long time, because they were looking for something ‘new’, they managed to get a copy of this letter. And that’s where they found the so-called new mantra revealing a modest President — no need for ‘Excellency’ or ‘Honourable’ as prefixes before his name, a simple ‘Shri Pranab’ would do.
“We didn’t actually plan it like that,” said a sheepish aide to me, “But when we saw the laudatory editorials and media columns, we decided to review all other protocol.” I guess that’s what they call the genius of Pranab and his team. Presented with the unexpected gift of good press, they looked around to give other instances of his modern outlook that was willing to throw out silly, colonial practices. Of course, the Rashtrapati had so many of these rituals, he was spoilt for a choice really. For example, one tradition demanded that two bagpiper players start on a tune and go around the banquet hall every time there was an official dinner. They’d play the bagpipes and do a full circle before stopping at the seat of the prime minister which would signal the end of the dinner. “This was silly,” said the aide, “If indeed you needed to have music to signal the end of something, shouldn’t it be something Indian like a flute? Why bagpipes?” And so the bagpipes tradition was banished back to the Kingdom after the last meal hosted for the President of Tajikistan.
This story actually makes me as wistful as Congressmen about Pranab Mukherjee. Why can’t others follow his example and get rid of practices that just don’t make sense any more and probably never did? For example, have you noticed a large sign displayed prominently on the road next to all toll booths. It has a list of 20-odd people like the President, the prime minister, the chief minister, an MP, a judge to even a foreign dignitary and a Param Vir Chakra awardee, that are exempt from paying toll. Now can anyone tell me why this list is necessary? It’s obviously not because they need to be at places quicker than others because the NHAI rules state that claimants like Param Vir Charka awardee will have to produce their I-card in order to get the free pass. It’s also not because these 20-odd people are economically weaker and need a helping hand. It’s simply because a toll booth pass is one of the things the government gives and most of these people need in order to feel special.
The VIP list of exemptions for the National Highway Authority of India is a public document but some entitlements aren’t written out in black and white, and yet they are as obvious as their lal batti or their starched khadis. Walk into any sarkari office in Delhi, and if you’re lucky, you may see some lackeys standing protectively around the lift.
The lift may be empty but they’ll keep holding it while they’ll guide you towards the only other one which will have the crowds of plebeians waiting. Basically, the VIP’s other lackeys had called in advance to let them know that he was on his way, and of course, he can’t wait for a few seconds because that would diminish his sense of worth. So ingrained is this idea to our system that even when they move from dingy, old quarters like the Shastri Bhawan to a modern, new space, they find a way to carry this along. The CBI headquarters, two years ago, moved to a glossy, glass building which is a poor man’s version of the MI5 building in London. They got rid of the stinky loos (for now) and traded them in for terrace gardens overlooking the golf course, but there’s one thing they maintained. When you enter the building, you will either be directed to the set of elevators on the left or the right. They go to the same floors but the ones on the left are only meant for the officers, that is mainly the IPS, and the segregation means that the higher-ups will never have to share space with the sweaty working class.
So here’s the thing, Mr President, it’s much easier to get rid of weighty titles and some bagpipes, but are you willing to take it to the next level and shame the entire bureaucracy and political class to follow your example? By the way, it’s probably best not to get all familiar and cosy up with the President too soon — The Rashtrapati Bhavan just clarified that when international protocol dictates, he’s back to being ‘Your Excellency’ again.