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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

It is the desire of every second-rate punk on the fringes of politics to get himself a gunman that so angers ordinary citizens

There is a certain futility to writing about VIP security. The general public is sick of politicians and their gunmen. All security specialists believe our system is seriously flawed. And even politicians themselves claim they regard the security as intrusive and unnecessary.

And yet nothing ever changes. In fact, things get steadily worse.

Two months ago, I was sufficiently moved by H D Deve Gowda's protestations he was only a humble farmer who did not enjoy the trappings of power to write him an open letter in these pages urging him to dismantle the Imperial Prime Ministership. To his credit, the then prime minister responded by inviting me to breakfast at Race Course Road and reiterating he hated the pomp and ceremony of the job.

Alas, just when I allowed myself to get a little optimistic that something would now be done, Sitaram Kesri pulled the plug on poor Deve Gowda's government.

Nevertheless, I have still not given up hope. Deve Gowda's successor, Inder Gujral, has displayed a rare sensitivity in his first month in office. He has called for a review of the security system. And his attitude suggests that as he knows he is not going to serve a full term as prime minister regardless of how many compromises he makes, he has decided he will use his relatively short spell in office to do not what is expedient but what is right.

There are two distinct aspects to what we term VIP security. The first is the desire to honour important people. It is for this reason that we block roads, stop traffic, provide motorcades and outriders and inconvenience ordinary citizens.

The second is the desire to protect those at risk. It is easy to minimise the security threat to politicians and important people but it would be foolish to pretend that it does not exist -- there have been enough assassinations over the last 15 years to prove that.

It is not my position we should not afford important visitors a certain level of ceremonial pomp. In every country, a degree of protocol is regarded as acceptable. If the President of India went to London, he would get a motorcade.

The problem is not with the principles of security. The problem is with the mindlessness with which these principles are applied. It is the stupidity of those in charge of VIP security that causes the inconvenience. And now, it is the desire of every second-rate punk on the fringes of politics to get himself a gunman that so angers ordinary citizens.

Let me give you three instances from my own experience over the last month.

One: I missed a flight from Calcutta to Bombay because the police actually shut down the bypass that connects the city to the airport on the grounds that the prime minister of Laos would be taking that route. All airport-bound traffic was diverted to a series of narrow by-lanes, huge jams resulted and a journey that should have taken 45 minutes took two hours.

Two: I waited for an hour (along with at least 40 other cars) at the foothills of the Nilgiris because the Tamil Nadu governor was allegedly going to pass that way and the police had stopped all traffic.

Three: my plane circled Delhi for half an hour because a VVIP aircraft was expected and no planes can land or takeoff when this is likely to happen.

There is no way in which any of these examples conformed to the basic principles of security. The Laos prime minister would have been quite happy with a motorcade or outriders. He probably didn't even know they had shut the main airport road in his honour. The Tamil Nadu governor never turned up -- eventually they let the traffic go on the grounds that his plans had been changed. In any case I doubt if he knew how many people had been inconvenienced for his sake. And as for the rule about closing Delhi airport because of VVIP movement, that is so absurd that I don't see why Gujral doesn't just call a meeting tomorrow and scrap it.

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