Columnist – Pritish Nandy;The Art of Living
Last month end I read about the Queen of England taking a train to Norfolk for her annual Christmas break. The 10.45 from King’s Cross, one of London’s busiest railway stations, dropped her off at King’s Lynn Station for a quiet winter holiday at her private Sandringham estate. Busy commuters barely noticed her come in ten minutes before the train left, with almost no visible security, and walk down platform 11 where she climbed onto a first class compartment to occupy a window seat. Others there were too busy reading their newspapers to notice the Queen was sitting amongst them. The train chugged out exactly on time.
Can you imagine this here? Will the President of India ever walk into a crowded railway station, catch a scheduled train, and travel with you and me sitting next to her? Unlikely. Very unlikely. Reason one and perhaps the most important: It will be considered improper, infra dig. Even the idea will be considered impertinent. How can the President of India travel like a commoner? Then will come a barrage of other excuses. What about her security? What if terrorists came to know she was travelling in a train full of people? What if she caught swine flu from the guy sitting next to her? What if her co-travellers bothered her with BO or conversation? What if Medha Patkar entered the compartment and handed over a petition? What if Naxalites attacked the train with bows and arrows?
Then there’s the other question: How will her staff go along? How can they fit into one compartment, all 238 (or whatever) of them? What about her family? They cannot travel separately and how would you fit 107 of them into a train compartment already packed with her staff? If a special bogey can be built to accommodate her staff and her family, where will her security sit? The first circle of 69 must be next to her even if the remaining 110 sit in the next coach. What about the outriders? Can they keep pace with the train? Shouldn’t the windows be bullet proof? Do we really want to allow normal passengers on that train? Who will frisk them? Can they check in two hours earlier so that the sniffer dogs can check their baggage too?
Eventually the President will fly in an aircraft to accommodate her entourage and then, on landing, zip down the roads with a convoy of 60 cars with beacons flashing and sirens screaming to hold up traffic for hours. The system disallows our leaders from sharing proximity with you and me. This is part of our feudal tradition and democracy has not made the slightest difference. We still believe the ruler and the ruled can’t share a common berth. Even Rahul Gandhi complains about this. He has to sneak away from his security to meet people he wants to. Or else, if the system has its way, he will spend all his time listening to a bunch of intermediaries giving him distorted versions of the world outside Tuqhlak Lane.
The truth is the Queen of England faces no fewer security risks than our President. Britain is a crucible of terror and every few weeks, young men are arrested there, plotting the most lethal terror strikes. London has, in fact, faced several attacks as well, in trains and buses. But that doesn’t stop the Queen from taking a scheduled train and travelling with common people. Our President prefers to fly a Sukhoi. Since most Indians don’t even know what a Sukhoi is, this only reaffirms her exalted status.
In a democracy, there’s actually no exalted status. The British media’s constantly questioning the Queen’s household bills, the Prime Minister’s expense account, the ruling party’s integrity in matters of claiming reimbursements. Prince Charles is frequently lampooned as bankrupt. Princess Diana went through hell simply because she was beautiful and fearless if somewhat indiscreet. The media there is dying to embarrass the rich, powerful and famous. There are no kid gloves. People enter public life there knowing exactly what goes with it. That’s why the Queen travels with ordinary people on a scheduled train, to assert her identity as one among them. She does not want to show off her status and privileges. She understands, like Rahul Gandhi, that authority comes from underplaying both.
If Indian netas want to regain their stature, if ministers want to be seen as real leaders, not exploiters of a venal political system, they must practise the art of humility. They must learn to travel like you and I. They must feel the pinch when food prices run up by 100%. They must share our fears, our uncertainties when jobs disappear. They must stop seeing themselves as our masters. We make them who they are. Even when they occupy the biggest residence of any Head of State in the world with 200,000 square feet for a home, 355 extravagantly decorated rooms and the prettiest rose garden anywhere.
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