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So what, if they are VIPs?

August 14, 2012 21:24 IST

In India traffic comes to a virtual standstill whenever there is 'VVIP movement'. At the Rio+20 Conference there were hundreds of world leaders, but no security agency seemed to hassle the locals, notes B S Prakash.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

The helicopter hovered above us and kept a steady watch on the road as our carcade traversed. The streets of Rio de Janeiro, a city of six million people, were bustling as usual.

On top of that there were over a hundred presidents or prime ministers in town. We had been naturally anxious about the secure and speedy movement of our prime minister from our hotel to the conference venue, but seated in one of the cars, a part of our motorcade, I marveled at how smoothly we were moving.

The scene was the Rio+20 Conference in June. It is a part of the ambassador's job to worry about the security, the transport, and the logistics on such occasions. We had done our fair amount of planning and thinking. But as we now moved, I began to observe how differently and almost casually our hosts, the Brazilians were managing this aspect.

There were a group of motorcycle outriders in front who operated in batches with a rhythm. Two of them raced ahead to block off the side streets just as the VVIP motorcade of around eight vehicles approached a section of the road.

Through some miraculous arrangement they always seemed to manage to create a stretch of empty road just as our cars came to a busy intersection. Elsewhere traffic flowed without stoppage or interruption, but without coming near us and thus providing a security hazard.

And as I said, a police chopper kept a benevolent eye on the whole movement from above. It was a 'neat' arrangement or legal as the Brazilians call it, the local word for 'cool'.

Everything is affected by culture, even security. My mind went back to the BRICS summit that we had hosted in Delhi in March, where too I was a participant. The scene was different. Roads had been blocked off all around the Taj Palace hotel, the venue of the BRICS summit.

The angry traffic of an impatient city, Delhi, had been brought to a virtual standstill by hordes of policemen whenever there was 'VVIP movement' as the jargon goes. In addition, hundreds of policemen lined the empty streets, rifles in hand, their backs to the road, facing the foliage.

Shrill whistles and the static of heavy wireless equipment broke the silence of the empty streets. We were told that we could do no less: after all the leaders of China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa were there, and there was always the risk of a Tibetan demonstration.

Well, all these leaders and a hundred more were in Rio too. But the management style was different. So was the culture. With such a high profile event in their city and a high risk event too, cariocas, as the Rio residents are called, frolicked on their beaches or played volleyball.

No security agency could hassle them, it seemed. 'So what if, they are VIPs, we lead our normal lives,' their attitude implied.

I thought of our different approaches, as we sped through the streets.

I am not criticising our system. I am very much a part of the system and have some knowledge of our challenges and limitations. And yet one must observe and reflect. Why is it that we throw more and more personnel at any problem and think of it as a solution, I thought.

Do we deploy so many because of employment or efficiency or the belief that there is safety in numbers? This is true of any event that we organise, whether a wedding or a convention or the Commonwealth Games. Multiple agencies, multitudes of functionaries. A surplus of people creates its own paradigms, I thought.

My mind attuned now to observing the cross-cultural differences, started discerning other patterns. If the traffic control in Rio had made me applaud Brazilian security, their time-management made me think proudly of our own protocol and event management ability.

We are used to minute to minute programmes and on the dot punctuality in events involving our highest. Our jokes about Indian Standard Time may be true of school functions and baraat arrivals, but when it comes to a State function involving VVIPS, our programmes run like clockwork.

In contrast, the inaugural event of Rio+20 involving hundreds of leaders was postponed by hours on the first day. Programmes started late, over-ran time allocations and sometimes were changed abruptly.

At Brazilian airports one needs to check the departure gates of planes every ten minutes, till you actually board the plane: such are the changes in gate, time and even destination. Some of that chaotic arbitrariness was seen even in an event of this magnitude. How come?

Again, I put it down to a cultural trait, the Brazilian belief system that 'time is an element outside one's control', and an easy, laid-back, and shrug it off attitude to delays.

Once I had begun to observe the organisational differences, there were many more that were fascinating.

Hierarchy, for example. In our system, usually but not universally, each senior functionary is seen surrounded by obsequious 'juniors' opening the door, carrying the briefcase, nodding 'yes Sir', and transmitting instructions to others even more junior than them.

We have a cluster around a figure of authority, though in many cases the personality himself may be self-sufficient and self-effacing. Many Asian countries are even more hierarchical with officials of varying ranks commanding one another almost in a military manner.

Around many African leaders there is a perceptible sense of awe and fear discernible in the periphery. The Scandinavians are the other extreme and given half a chance will prefer to jog or cycle alone to a venue, even if they are ministers.

The Brazilians are naturally non-hierarchical, without being even conscious of the trait. Whether an intern or a senior professional or the supreme boss, they exude a casual attitude clearly visible in their body language and a 'devil may care' nonchalance.

The organisational styles are also different. For the Davos forum in Switzerland, hotel bookings are made years in advance and uncertainty is an alien concept. In Rio, the availability of rooms was so uncertain that at one stage, there was talk of the 'love motels' that dot the city being ready to offer their rooms to the desperate delegates, complete with circular beds, red velvet bedspreads, mirrors on the ceilings, and jacuzzi foam baths.

The only problem was that these hotels are used to offering their rooms by the hour and the idea of embassies wanting to make a two-week booking was incomprehensible to them. I have to state for the record that no Indian delegate was accommodated in any such hotel!

Thinking about the different styles and standards in international protocol, I idly wondered whether it would not be a good idea for a meet of the chiefs of protocol from different countries to exchange notes on their trade craft.

I imagined them discussing issues that are bread and butter aspects of their job: What is better for a state banquet for 36 guests; round tables with a centre or a long one with two sides; what is the ideal photo-opportunity for a meeting of two traditional foes -- a firm handshake or a light embrace; how to match gifts so that neither side feels over-generous or belittled, and a hundred such other tricky questions.

Imagine my surprise then that a few days later, I read that the chief of protocol at the US state department had actually organised such a conference and had invited many of her colleagues including the Indian chief of protocol. I do not know whether they agreed on a three course or a five course menu for official lunches.

B S Prakash is India's Ambassador to Brazil and can be reached at ambassador@indianembassy.org.br

You can read more columns by Mr Prakash here.

B S Prakash