The Supreme Court judgment banning the use of red beacon lights by all except those holding Constitutional positions is rich in symbolic value. A common refrain and regret among the masses and the classes is that the citizen has ceded much ground to politicians and government servants. Cars fitted with red beacon lights, flashers and multi-toned horns have been one of the most visible symbols of power in Independent India.
Over the years this obsessions with “lal battis” has seen MPs and MLAs and civil servants, of high and lower ranks, acquire this status symbol. In its judgment, the Supreme Court said these trappings of power were “contrary to the constitutional ethos and the basic feature of Republicanism”. The Supreme Court also condemned the “Raj mentality” that drives the craze for red beacon lights.
But doing away with beacon lights attacks a symptom rather than the cause of the disease. Over the years, an abundance of privileges have been lavished on public servants without any scrutiny or audit. In the absence of checks and balances, public servants have embraced a culture of entitlement effectively rendering ordinary citizens as an inferior lot. The craving for preferential treatment among the ruling class has tended to validate the criticism that only the colour of the rulers changed in post-Independent India. For a country steeped in centuries of feudalism and caste hierarchies, it would appear that entering the government as peoples’ representatives and employees became an opportunity to enjoy prestige and privilege.
The abuse of power ranges from the criminal to the tragic. We have instances of former ministers overstaying in government bungalows, assaulting security guards at airports and toll-booth attendants who were merely discharging their duties, or the murder of RTI activists who ask uncomfortable questions. Various solutions have been proposed to check the abuse of power.
Lokpal and Lokayuktas, citizen’s charter, public grievance and vigilance commissions, Right to Information, and public hearings have all been mooted as solutions to check the power of the State. But these are not enough.
The entry of the Aam Aadmi Party as a political alternative can be traced to the disillusionment with the political and bureaucratic class. The party has made a start urging their newly-elected legislators to renounce beacons and other trappings of power. Implementing the Supreme Court judgment will be a challenge. A tacit understanding between the political class, bureaucracy, police and judiciary will ensure that violators go unpenalised.
The police have been asked to enforce the judgment without “fear or favour and to impose appropriate penalty” on those who violate it. With their hands tied down by political controls, like many other SC judgments even this one will lose its sting over time. The delay faced by contempt petitions in the Supreme Court also points to the judiciary’s inability to enforce laws when administrations do not cooperate. A political consensus on rolling back the privileges the State has accorded itself over the years is an ideal worth fighting for. The Supreme Court judgment is a means to an end; by itself, it does not end the larger evil.