“Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important.” — T.S. Eliot

INDIA’S Narendra Modi was not granted a visa for the US for his alleged involvement in the pogrom of Gujrat. However, when Modi became prime minister, the US government not only granted him a visa but also arranged a state visit and hosted a lavish banquet in his honour at the White House.

But there was still a problem to be resolved. VVIP Modi Sahib was on a nine-day fast. For nine days he would take only some lemonade and a cup of tea. The White House chefs who could whip up food from every nation were nonplussed by the ‘fast’. How would it look with the guests around the main table, including host President Barack Obama, enjoying the fine delicacies laid out and chief guest Mr Modi sipping lemonade with honey?

A similar perplexing situation arose during a banquet in honour of India’s president V.V. Giri in Moscow. The president’s wife was horrified to see liquor and meat being served at the dinner in honour of her husband.

Privileges for politicians can further burden our strained economy.
She made a big hue and cry, muttering innuendos in Tamil and then walked out of the dining hall much to the embarrassment of president Giri and his retinue. She summoned Air India’s catering manager in charge of vegetarian meals, S.N. Bakshi, and drove to the Air India aircraft parked many miles outside Moscow. There she had a vegetarian meal prepared by Bakshi under her watchful eyes to ensure the purity of its preparation.

I have first-hand knowledge about the fuss made over VIPS. As equipment planning officer of Air India I was not only a witness but an active participant in arranging a large amount of perfumes, cigarettes, and other gifts for presidents, prime ministers and their retinue, including media persons, on board VIP flights.

But personal whims, fancies and doling out expensive gifts to favourites is not typical of India alone.

Recently Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif asked that the advocate general of Pakistan be provided a 2400cc Mercedes which is beyond his entitlement as he is allowed no more than an 1800cc car allowed to the judges of the Supreme Court. Reason: the incumbent advocate general had won for Sharif and his family many law cases. This action will burden an already strained national economy and create problems at the highest administrative level, and may well set a precedent that may be difficult to manage in the future.

Some years ago while a Pakistani minister was at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport and being seen off by a protocol staff of the Swedish foreign office, the VIP stamped his foot arrogantly and all but shouted, “But where is the VIP lounge?” The protocol officer stepped forward and pointed to an aged man seated in a corner reading a magazine with his overcoat and briefcase lying alongside with no one by his side to attend to him.

“Do you know who that is?” asked the Swedish officer. “No,” replied the Pakistani minister. “Must I?”

“Yes. He is the king of Sweden. He has no one in attendance, but you have me to assist you because you are a guest of the royal Swedish government.”

In late ’70s in Tripoli I saw the Libyan power minister carry his suitcases from counter to counter begging customs officers to clear him.

He had arrived from India after signing a multi-million dollar protocol for the Tripoli West power station but no one in his home country seemed to care. Likewise Col Qadhafi was often seen driving his car to drop his son to school as did a former president of Iran quite recently.

In comparison we make such a to-do about VIP status that once a PPP lawmaker tabled a resolution that all members of the provincial assembly should be given VIP status.

At another time in the National Assembly lawmakers demanded official passports for themselves and their families so that they could enjoy VIP status even during their sojourns abroad, whether on work or on vacation.

Wrote the French philosopher Montaigne perhaps a bit sarcastically, “Glory consists of two parts: the one of setting too great a value upon ourselves, and the other in setting too little value upon others.”

So what is the way out of this quagmire? Perhaps the fun made of those who attempt to maintain their simplicity and self-esteem and make the civilised look like cranks in society must be blunted if not ended altogether.

Every society must know the power behind a simple sartorial image, the shunning of pomp, show and consumerism and the assertion of limited wants. Only then can VIP culture truly end.

The writer is a freelance contributor.