‘We, The Rulers’ Vs ‘You, The People’: It’s Time We Moved The Rashtrapati Out Of His Bhavan

R Jagannathan

Mar 25, 2017, 12:40 PM | Updated 12:40 PM IST

Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace in New Delhi, India. (David Castor)
Rashtrapati Bhavan, the presidential palace in New Delhi, India. (David Castor)
  • “We, the People” is not the driving sentiment of power in India. It is about separating “We, the Rulers” from “You, the People”.
  • There are several ways to effect change in this attitude, but the change nevertheless must come from the top.
  • The case of the Shiv Sena member of Parliament, Ravindra Gaikwad, who has been barred from flying on domestic routes for getting physical with an Air India official the other day, should not cause us to think that this is some kind of isolated obnoxious behaviour. It should force us to look inward and recognise what we have become: people who find status and validation by humiliating or putting others down.

    In part, this attitude may have come with our caste system, but our lawmakers added a layer of class hauteur to caste and adopted all the attitudes of our former white-skinned rulers. Thus when we want to show we have arrived, we need red-beacon cars and black cat commandoes, we expect to be treated differently by the law if we are powerful or wealthy, we covet ostentatious houses and fancy cars. The richer we become, the greater the crassness with which we demand dowries or expensive weddings.

    Our netas and babus and (even) Lutyens-based journalists have taken up this elitist attitude by lapping up the trappings of power and patronage as if this is their birth right. While journalists in state capitals can be as venal and corrupt and aligned to power as some in Delhi’s English media, one does not see the same sense of entitlement as we do in Lutyens Delhi, where journalists covet bungalows and farm houses as often as the rich and powerful.

    And it is not as if our judges and policemen or armymen are exempt from this pathology. Like nowhere else in the world, some of our judges are a law unto themselves, more focused on perpetuating their own power. Our policemen behave like slaves when facing powerful people, but become tyrants when the poor come to them seeking redress. Our armymen have done the country yeoman service, but have not let go of old habits where other junior soldiers are forced to do menial chores at home, including washing vessels and taking the dog out for a walk.

    Clearly, “We, the People” is not the driving sentiment of power in India. It is about separating “We, the Rulers” from “You, the People (and other riff-raff)”. And I am not the first one to say it, that our elected representatives see themselves as masters, not servants, of the people.

    So what is the way out? The Punjab government’s recent directive to stop the use of red beacons atop government vehicles is a good move, but one wonders why this needed to be emphasised when four years ago, both Punjab and Haryana governments had already announced drastic restrictions on the use of red beacons. Clearly, Indians find a way to get around laws sooner or later, testifying to our innate need to display the trappings of power.

    The time for small and symbolic gestures is over. We now need to get more drastic, and the orders for this need to come from the top – Narendra Modi himself.

    Among the moves that can be considered more than symbolic, going well beyond the abandonment of red beacons, are the following:

    One, shifting all ministers and bureaucrats out of palatial bungalows and residences to flats. Ideally, both Rashtrapati Bhavan and Hyderabad House, and the entire bungalow crowd of Lutyens Zone Delhi should be moved to more modest accommodations, and the properties auctioned to diplomats and the rich, or converted into public places like museums, hospitals or parks where everyone gets access. Fees can be charged to make this self-financing. The message can come by ensuring that the next President of India will live like a modest Indian, and not in British-era palatial splendour. Five large multi-storeyed complexes in Delhi will be enough to house all of Delhi power elite, from ministers to judges to MPs and high-ranking police and army officials. These residences will also be easier to provide security for than sprawling bungalows.

    Two, the Bhavans of Delhi (Udyog Bhavan, Shastri Bhavan, Krishi Bhavan, etc.), symbols of babu and political power, must be moved to states to get rid of the assumption that Delhi is a durbar. Does it make sense to house Krishi Bhavan in Delhi or closer to where India’s real farmers are – in Punjab or western Uttar Pradesh? Why does an industry ministry have to be located in New Delhi when broadband video can make officials and ministers accessible to everyone even if it is housed in Nagpur or Noida? The very idea that industry and businessmen have to come to Delhi to get work done needs to be buried. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have banished lobbyists from the Bhavans, but wouldn’t it have been better to banish the Bhavans themselves? These Bhavans should be auctioned to giant corporations for huge sums and the money used for more needy causes that government does not currently find money for. Once the centre sets the standard, the states will surely follow, if only to prove they are more pro-people than the rest.

    Three, barring a handful – maybe the Prime Minister, one or two politicians facing real terrorist threats – Z, Y and X category security cover must be withdrawn for everyone else. Instead, those who believe they are under threat should be given an allowance to recruit and maintain their own security detail. For too many people, Z category security is a matter of status, not anything else. No kind of security could prevent a Rajiv Gandhi from being assassinated. His widow, son and daughter hardly merit the kind of security they are now given at the cost of the taxpayer. As kin of three former prime ministers, the Gandhi family should be given security, but surely a couple of lakhs every month paid out of government coffers will enable them to buy their own and more loyal security?

    Four, parliamentary privileges need to be whittled down. This should include not only the powers of contempt, where parliament can haul up any citizen who is deemed to hold legislators in contempt, but also entitlements like business class airfares (the bone of contention in the Gaikwad case), subsidised canteens, and so on. Long-serving parliamentarians can be given business class travel rights, but arrogant MPs cannot surely claim this as a right from Day One? When the CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies can travel “cattle class”, who do the Gaikwads need special privileges?

    India achieved formal independence from its colonial masters 70 years ago. But we have not let go of our colonial and feudal mindsets. The British are gone, but attitudes formed during the British Raj are very much with us.

    This time change has to begin from the top. Over to you, Modi-ji.

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.