ATale of Two Cities was a classic read in my high school. A memorable novel about the French Revolution was written by one of the best English novelists, Charles Dickens. This book opens with a striking scene that tells us why an insurgency had to happen in the 18th-century France. An aristocrat is riding in his carriage drawn by four horses in the crowded lanes of Paris, where children are playing. A child is killed.
The carriage comes to a halt. Its aristocratic occupant looks out casually and inquires why the rabble cannot look after their children and flings a coin at the dead child’s father. This scene is re-enacted in the 21st-century India when another aristocrat, this time it is a popular cinema star, drives his plush limousine onto a crowded footpath in Mumbai, killing a homeless citizen of that great metropolis. This time, he did not even throw a coin. He was a superstar beyond reproach.
Both of the incidents speak of entitlement which the wealthy and the privileged wear as a badge of their special status in society. It may be a cinema star. It may be a millionaire businessman. Or it may be, as it often is the case, a politician. These are people who wear their status on their sleeves and get away with murder. You see them in airports where planes with hundreds of passengers do not take off until they arrive. You see them in events that keep the audiences waiting for the chief guest to arrive at least an hour late.
You see them in cricket matches being ushered into the best seats when hundreds of others were turned away after waiting for hours to buy a ticket. In India, privilege comes with money, clout or connections. The last is the commonest and most misused.
In any of the countries of the India-Bangladesh-Pakistant subcontinent, ministers, members of parliament or members of the legislative assembly wear the entitlement like a badge of honour. They break traffic rules without fear of being penalised or jump the queue without being reprimanded. If they occupy a higher position in the pecking order, they can stop all traffic on the roads while their car and their outriders go whizzing by.
The little red light on the vehicles proclaims their entitlement in no uncertain terms. What a contrast to countries where even the prime minister obeys traffic rules like anybody else. We have heard that story of a British prime minister who, when informed that his son was booked for a traffic offence, observed that the law should take its course. He did not send an aide to rescue the offender.
Again, it is not uncommon to find an American president jogging in the mornings along with other joggers without any fuss or fanfare. His security guards may be following him, but the public is not disturbed. Children of VVIPs attend schools in America just like other children, with no special advantages. The notion of getting freebies and extra benefits seems a very typical Indian syndrome.
India has remained at the crossroads of culture, where the Gandhian ideal of travelling third class ‘because there is no fourth class’ is forgotten in today’s political milieu.
Prime ministers like Morarji Desai who announced that members of his family should be subject to all the laws of the country if found flouting any rules are few and far between. Ramakrishna Hegde, the former chief minister, was an example in his own state of a VIP who did not expect special treatment. He was once seen buying a ticket for a play in a local theatre and occupying his seat after checking the number. When the organisers offered a front-row seat for the chief minister, he politely refused.
This indeed was a far cry from his successors. Take the examples of India, Pakistan or Bangladesh where elected representatives use their status as a right to enjoy privileges that are not even legal. Whether it is getting a site allotted out of turn, a permit to build a house flouting all norms, or getting recognition for a professional college, they claim this licence as a matter of right. They trespass into private clubs, demand seats in professional colleges for their wards, use public spaces for their private functions without a qualm.
The latest in this misuse of power is shocking, to say the least. When the whole country — why, even the world — is reeling under a terrible viral infection that has already killed more than 327,000 and threatens to kill tens of thousands more, politicians in the three countries are (reportedly) merrily celebrating festivals and functions at great risk to themselves and others.
When the prime minister ordered a lockdown with social distancing in all the states and union territories of India, many chief ministers welcomed the move as the only way to prevent the novel coronavirus infection from spreading. Strangely, the chief minister of Karnataka failed to understand the gravity of the situation when he ordered a festival where thousands of participants would throng the streets and temples. He attended a colleague’s private function, mingling with other guests, none of whom wore the prescribed mask and gloves.
The latest in this wilful and irresponsible behaviour was the green signal given for the celebration of a former chief minister’s son, who also happens to be a former prime minister’s grandson. It was a shocking celebration flouting all the rules prescribed by doctors, posing a risk of the coronavirus spreading
This incident also reveals a sense of entitlement resulting from high office, money and power. In India, privilege also comes from education, especially English education. It may be the remnants of snobbery associated with colonial rule. But a knowledge of English does bestow a false sense of superiority just as wealth breeds arrogance.
If these two are combined with political clout, the result can be disastrous as we are witnessing today. Just walk into the downtown or city centre, you come across people who are claiming their entitlements, for whatever reasons.
Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.
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