Modern literature produces its own classification of people as types. Some of these creations acquire a life of their own. Two books in particular dominated the foreign policy of the Sixties. One was Graham Greene’s The Quiet American; the other was a book Berkeley political scientist William Burdick, a favourite of John Kennedy, wrote with William J. Lederer. Greene’s book is more literary, but Burdick’s book, The Ugly American, became a legend; it attained the life of folklore.
Media and folklore created an inversion of type, though. The original Ugly American was simple, homely, practical, evoking an authenticity that was rare. The Ugly American of media was loud, garrulous, insensitive and ethnocentric. He was the greatest threat to the idea of America, as he was contemptuous of everything un-American. Greene’s ‘Quiet American’ had a better sense of evil, ambition and violence but, as a piece of pop sociology, Burdick’s book became a bestseller. It also triggered an epidemic of equivalents. ‘The Ugly Indian’ was one of them, but it’s a pity the ‘Ugly Indian’, despite his undoubted and august presence, has neither become a character in a novel nor a case study in a management book.
My father, who loved George Orwell, claimed that as a cop and a writer, Orwell understood India in a particular way. Animal Farm, he claimed, was a critique of Indian socialism, where the pigs, challenging equality, claimed “some were more equal than others”. As animal symbolism goes, the Pig is the archetypal VIP, but, as some have added, even the pig looks restrained next to our local product.
Waste, excess, and disruption are necessary for a VIP as spectacle. Corruption as the conspicuous politics of power and consumption begins with him. He shames the Mughal and zamindar in his need for trappings of power.
The Indian VIP needs a full ethnography. No management expert has captured this creature who makes a travesty of governance. The Indian Republic, following Orwell, created three kinds of citizens. First was the middle-class man who wore his ration card like a flag. Second was the temporary citizen of the informal economy whose claim to citizenship was ephemeral. Third was the VIP—who became India’s glorious contribution to the idea of conspicuous citizenship.
The VIP did not live in the world of entitlement or rights. He claimed excess as his birth right and turned Indian democracy into a battle between excess and access, between potlatch and subsistence. The VIP, unlike a citizen, is not singular. He is not a person because no VIP lives alone or can be conceptualised alone. Indian socialism got rid of the zamindar-as-parasite to replace him with the free-range rapaciousness of the
British writer A. Northcote Parkinson could have formulated the laws of VIPness. First, the VIP has a right to delay. Parkinson claimed that work expands over time, while VIPs expand over delay. The VIP has a ‘constitutional’ right to disturb, to interrupt, to deprive. The VIP threatens everyone’s rights but becomes violent when his entitlements are threatened. His rights include his lackeys and his family. The VIP, in that sense, is not a person in the juristic sense of the term, but a collectivity. India created two types of reservation, one political, the other bureaucratic. Political reservation was for less endowed castes; VIP reservation was for the rich and powerful. The word ‘reserved’ in a ceremony was like an enclosure movement. It cuts off access to everyone else.
The word VIP is one of the great prefixes of modern governance. Even Modi’s favourite word, ‘development’, does not carry such a burden. One can think of local, human or sustainable development, but the word VIP has an epidemic vanity of suffixes. Think of a VIP area, VIP pavilion, VIP security, VIP seats, a VIP wedding. One realises that the VIP has intruded everywhere and made a travesty of citizenship. It is ironic that the roots of the word were so modest and functional. This acronym goes back to World War II, where British officers organising flights for military leaders used the anonymity of the title to conceal their identity. The only thing modest about the VIP was the etymology
A friend of mine argued that the five greatest threats to Indian democracy were nepotism, corruption, violence, waste and sycophancy. Sycophancy is an internalised trait in India. It protects the VIP from feeling vulnerable and protects the hangers-on from any violence. Even in a university, which is supposed to encourage critique, students sit before the favourite professor, clapping at every word and both thrive on it. Sycophancy is a governance tactic. Without networks, an Indian feels naked. A colleague once told me a story about a professor of English who taught Kafka’s The Castle in India. He elaborated with great passion the travails of the hero seeking to enter the Castle. At the end of the lecture, there was a strange silence. A student asked him in a puzzled way. “Did not the hero have any contacts?”
Contacts, sycophancy, patronage; these constitute the air we breathe in. Every Indian wants to be a VIP. It is the only commons he can think of. The entitlements a VIP feels expresses the poverty of a culture. It is a statement of a bare minimum. VIPs need and thrive on excess. Excess is human, consoling, ego-nurturing.
One has to understand the VIP is both specimen and spectacle. But this ugly Indian, unlike his American counterpart, is an inner-directed, domestic creature, not a fable of foreign policy like the Ugly American. The Ugly Indian abroad is a meek creature, but he inflates to his natural pomposity like an Aeneas as he touches Indian soil. He becomes obscene and unreasonable and demands continuous attention. The Shiv Sena MP, Ravindra Gaikwad, is only a milder version of his kind, arrogant about his privileges but easy to control. Our VIP is like an epidemic who feels governance was invented for him. In fact, one can retrospectively conjure up a creation myth as follows: God, feeling the VIP needed a companion, created the Personal Assistant (PA). With the two of them, the jugalbandi of corruption as power was complete.
The VIP was corpulent, physically and symbolically. The PA was pinched and Jesuitical in his safari suit. Between the two, they can make a travesty of good governance. In fact, the VIP is a spectacle. If he does not delay/disrupt normal life, he is not an effective being. As a self-styled epidemic, he is proliferative, demanding the services of police personnel. India today has over 5,79,092 VIPs. It is clear that he is not an endangered species but thrives as a part of the democratic imagination. If Orwell based Animal Farm in India, the Pigs would have given way to VIPs in an updated edition. All the RTI stories put together do not challenge his existence, but only add to his myth and mana.
The VIP has no sense of limit. His sense of excess does not allow for boundary. Probably the classic VIP in India was Pratibha Patil. She was not a person but a retinue of people, perpetually surrounded by relatives and friends. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam must have been a shock to governance. The asceticism of one merely added to the sense of caricature that Pratibha Patel created. But a VIP is not endemic to the higher echelons of power. Any panchayat, school or public space will do. Each VIP is a leviathan of consumption, whether it is at a nukkad or five-star hotel. It is almost as if the poor and powerless of India need an opposite as a Sense of Utopia. The VIP is India’s idea of a paradise on earth. He is the Indian version of the miracle of loaves and fishes, where the government or community as an akshaya paatram meets his every demand, from food to sex.
In fact, the Western idea of power was preoccupied with absolute power, which Lord Acton said corrupted absolutely. It was not totalitarian power that corrupted India. It was power as consumption of privilege. It was excess, not the absolutism of power but its corpulence, its greed. Power which was not misused in petty ways added little to the aesthetics of corruption. A VIP had to display power, show power as a performance, demonstrate a zero-sum game where the VIP’s privilege disrupted the entitlements of citizenship.
Unless privilege is a free ride, a premium offering for which the VIP does not pay, he doesn’t enjoy it. There is something about the Indian ego in power that thinks democracy is a free ride for the few which the majority has to desire, envy and see as part of the normalcy of power. The idea of equality goes against the norm of VIPdom. The VIP world is a restricted commons. There are no great decisions demanded, no contestations of power; all one has to recognise is that power as a form of being must be a spectacle, an everyday exercise where one lives exorbitantly without paying for it.
Premium privileges only capture the banality of VIP life. It is an affable apartheid within democracy in India, where the racism of power is built around conspicuous consumption. Here, public spaces pander to private good, creating an egoism of power that is ugly and excessive. When public goods are siphoned off for private power, a VIP as a phenomenon is born. Excess is critical. One has to prostrate before the VIP, create an excess where even legendary hospitality seems ascetic. Without waste, excess, disruption, a VIP as spectacle does not exist. Corruption as the conspicuous, obscene politics of power and consumption begins with the VIP. He shames the Mughal and the zamindar in his need for the trappings of power.
The VIP as Ugly Indian is a threat to democracy. In fact, poverty does not threaten democracy, because for all its violence, poverty has a sense of dignity, dream and asceticism. The affluence of a VIP feeding off a community is obscene. It corrodes the innards of democracy as a form of caring. Maybe poverty reduction might begin by eliminating the VIP as a species. There is a hope here that we need to think about.