'What kind of insensitivity does it take to get taxpayers to cough up for an aircraft costing a few billion for your personal use, at a time when the country you head is in so much trouble?' asks Sherna Gandhy.
In a country that has just shown it is still abysmally poor, with an inadequate, poorly funded health care system that has caused over one lakh deaths in the current pandemic, a huge unorganised workforce that lives perpetually on the edge, an education system that is clearly nowhere near being digitally enabled, and a continuing series of brutal rapes of women, it was stomach churning to read of the customised Boeing 777 acquired for the use of the President, Vice President and Prime Minister.
If the new rajahs who rule us wish to fly about in private planes when they go on State visits abroad, I have nothing against that.
After all, to expect a neta to be like the aam janta is a bit much. Why should s/he go through all the rigours of fighting his way to the top if he is to be treated just like anybody else?
If they wear suits made of cloth of gold, I got nothing much against that either. If you were brought up wearing drab cotton kurtas, it is only human to yearn for the day when you can turn up in a suit threaded with gold. Such sartorial vanities may be forgiven.
It sticks in my craw a bit when they don't go the atmasomething way when it comes to the cars they swan around in, but I can swallow it if I try hard enough.
But what kind of insensitivity does it take to get taxpayers to cough up for an aircraft costing a few billion (no one has dared publicise the actual price tag) for your personal use, at any time, but particularly at a time when the country you head is in so much trouble?
The 747 used exclusively by the PM to satisfy his passion for travelling abroad and clasping world leaders to his bosom has been 'upgraded' to a state of the art Boeing 777, described as a 'flying fortress' by an admiring newscaster. It is apparently to be called Air India One (echoes of Air Force One).
Since the PM is such a busy chap that he needs to hold urgent meetings when up in the sky, the aircraft is also fitted with the latest in communications technology.
What other, more sybaritic pleasures are on offer, one does not know.
It's not as if the President and PM flew with the aam janta before this.
Air India owns some Boeing 747-400s that are used on international State visits, and the IAF currently owns four 14-seater Embraer 13 aircraft costing Rs 14 billion each, four 20-seater Embraer 145 and three customised 46-seater Boeing Business Jets costing Rs 93.4 billion each, that have a VIP cabin and are used for VIP movement.
Unlike the Boeing 747s, the 777 will not be used commercially, but will be kept exclusively for the use of the country's top three netas.
That's called living the good life, eh?
It may not come amiss for the above mentioned netas to revisit the man we call the father of the nation, whose most disobedient children we are.
The birth anniversary of this high thinking and simple living man was celebrated just a day or two after the landing of the luxurious 777 in Delhi and the contrast between the ideals this nation started off with after gaining Independence, and where we have reached today, could not be starker.
On the day the news of the swanky Boeing was broadcast, we heard that 28 years of investigating by a premier investigating agency in one of the most shameful crimes to have been committed in this country, the courts could not find a single piece of evidence against any one of the 32 people who were said by the Central Bureau of Investigation to have conspired and encouraged the tearing down of the Babri mosque.
This, when several of the perpetrators have boasted in public to being party to the crime.
BJP member and former chief of Shiv Sena's North India faction, Jai Bhagwan Goyal, one of the accused, is said to have boasted after this verdict that he had participated and would do so against other mosques as well.
Those orange clad sisters-in-arms, Rithambara and Bharti have never ceased to proclaim what a noble deed they had been engaged in. But the CBI, the country's top investigative agency, could not find enough proof to convince the CBI special court that these ladies were in any way involved in the conspiracy.
One wonders why these 32 persons were named by the CBI if there was no evidence against them.
They have also been allowed to live in freedom for the past 28 years, having been happily granted bail even as those who deserve bail have been shamelessly thrown into prison under draconian laws for no crime that anyone knows of as yet.
If it was the Muslim community that had been the aggressor, how different the story would be! Oh, I'm forgetting, in fact 'intelligence' was available that terrorists from across the border had disguised themselves as 'kar sevaks' and were actually the ones swinging the hammers to bring down the mosque.
The saga of crimes against women and caste violence seems only to have grown bigger and more vicious, given free licence by the behaviour and utterances of elected representatives of the people.
The brutal killing and alleged rape of a 19-year-old woman in a village in Hathras in Uttar Pradesh was compounded by the appalling behaviour of the UP police who whisked away the body and surreptitiously burnt it without informing the young woman's family.
And then imposed a tight lockdown on the village so that no one could enter to discover the truth of the misdemeanours that had obviously been committed.
This in a state governed by a chief minister who calls himself a yogi and whose hate filled speeches should have ruled him out from being appointed the leader of anything leave alone a state.
Very little of this sort of news makes it to the foreign press, which is still banging on about India being a great investment destination.
The very fact that Amnesty, one of the most respected human rights organisations in the world, has been forced to shut shop in India because of petty and continuous harassment by government agencies, will ensure that the kind of news that will get out is of the state-of-the-art Boeing 777 type, and not of the appalling eroding of institutions and peoples' Constitutional rights.
Sherna Gandhy is a distinguished journalist and commentator.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com