The VIP culture of India: Do we need an equality of citizens act ?
In India, almost everybody tries to be a VIP. Dropping names, pulling strings, bribing cops, using family connections, we try it all. When actor Shah Rukh Khan initially expressed outrage at being interrogated at a US airport, he symbolized a larger Indian malaise -- the VIP culture. But is this culture unique to India? Does it exist elsewhere?
Not really. The VIP culture seems to be a uniquely Indian phenomenon. As Sydney-based banker Joseph Mathews says, "It is a fallout of the colonial mindset and almost feudal in intent."
In the West, things are totally different. Sweden, for instance, believes in sticking to the rules. George Abraham, an Indian doctor in the small Swedish town of Varnamo, says, "One doesn't need to look for escape routes if one sticks to the rules. That doesn't mean traffic rules aren't broken. But the fines are so heavy, one would baulk at breaking them again. It could vary from Rs 1,200-28,000, you could lose your licence for two months or be put in jail." Is that too harsh? No, a well-functioning society needs them, insists Abraham.
Sweden also rejoices in its complete absence of hierarchies. Everyone is treated the same, from CEO of a company to its cleaner, except, of course, the King. Name-dropping is considered extremely embarrassing. What about queues? Do Swedes think it fair for important people to jump queues? Abraham is clear: It would be in extremely poor taste to break them. Bribing cops? Don't even think about it, he says. Paybacks? "It must happen," he shoots back quickly. "Remember Bofors?"
The VIP culture seems refreshingly absent from the UK too, says Dr Hardy Thomas, lecturer in finance at the University of Essex. Thomas, who has lived in the UK for more than two decades, appreciates the no-nonsense attitude of the English policeman. The VIP culture could not work here, he says. If celebrities throw their weight around, the rule book will be thrown at them and the media called in. What about name-dropping? Just not done. Minor British royals don't have a police escort.
As in Sweden, bribery means strict punishment. You will be jailed instantly. In the UK, the police is answerable only to the courts and can't be manipulated, says Thomas.
In Japan, an SRK-type episode wouldn't even make it to the newspapers, says Nagasawa, Delhi bureau chief of Japanese financial daily Nikkei. "The Indian media has behaved as if the star deserves special treatment," he says. He admits there have been instances of Japanese celebrities getting caught with drugs and politicians taking bribes, but the law is very strict. "I, too, have been caught speeding just 10km/hr over the prescribed limit and had to pay a fine of some $300. Did I try to reduce it? No, it would have backfired," says Nagasawa.
India's VIP culture is also foreign to New Zealand and Australia, with Mathews emphasizing it is limited to the entertainment industry and the law is generally the same for everyone. Two years ago, a driver in New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark's convoy was caught overspeeding, faced the legal process and was promptly served with regulatory notices.
But it's a different story in South Asia. Much of the sub-continent is enormously prone to the VIP culture, laments Prabhu Ghate, former contributing editor of Himal, a Nepalese regional news magazine. "Abroad, there is more respect for the individual. A policeman in the US will always be referred to as sir or officer," he says.
Caste makes the VIP in Nepal, adds Rita Manchanda, director, research, South Asia Forum for Human Rights in Kathmandu. Society is highly-stratified and dominated by Brahmins and Kshatriyas. She points to the unique problems that come with being unequal before the law. "Everyone in Kathmandu knows everybody else (but currently) with no real government (in Nepal) people are getting away with crime. No one knows who is close to whom and whom to arrest."
Shobha John, First Published on TOI / 23 August 2009
Having lived in the "West" for the last 23 years, let me tell you that the "West" likes to portray itself as law abiding and a stickler to rules but that is just an image. If you look at how all the CEO's and top executives of all the the now defunct top Financial Institutions were treated then you will realize how misguided is your article. The Shahrukh operation is obviously a Psy Op. The US immigration was well aware of who Shahrukh was, you just have to read the article in your own newspaper. They were trying to collect information from Shahrukh and maybe also assess the impact of this incident.
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