Simple living, high thinking is no longer on the agenda of our netas. Barring a few exceptions, most of them believe that they cannot command the respect of the people unless they flaunt their political power or their wealth. This attitude of peoples’ representatives is most obvious in Delhi, the seat of political power in India. Nothing explains the present mood of MPs than the demand by MPs to be given the right to fit red beacons atop their cars.

The clamour for red beacons took the form of a formal demand by MPs when a hundred of them signed a petition addressed to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha last August and demanded that the rules be amended to enable them to fit these beacons on their vehicles.

Some of those who signed the petition told the media that it was “embarrassing” for them to go around their constituencies without “laal battis”. They also complain that while some states like Uttar Pradesh permit them to use beacon lights on their vehicles, they are prohibited from doing so in the national capital. As a result, MPs from Uttar Pradesh say they have to dismantle this apparatus while crossing into Delhi from Uttar Pradesh and they feel “embarrassed” to do so.

According to some of the signatories, there are two distinct disadvantages in moving around with the red beacon. One, they get stuck in traffic jams like the “aam janta”. Second, their vehicles get challaned by the police. They have also demanded toll-free transit along the highways.   

The Speaker passed on their petition to the Committee of Privileges of the House, which has since examined the issue. In its Second Report, which was tabled on November 30, 2011 in the Lok Sabha, the committee said the provision of red beacon light atop the vehicle of MPs is an issue which is “closely connected with the status of Members of Parliament besides the protocol issue and Warrant of Precedence”.

The committee has noted that many states including Uttar Pradesh have provided this facility to MPs by issuing a notification under Section 108(iii) of the Motor Vehicles Rules. Since the Motor Vehicles Act is a Central Act, the committee has recommended that the Union Government issue a similar notification under the above section to permit MPs to have these lights above their vehicles. Such a notification would have all India applicability and allow MPs to enjoy this facility all over the country. “In addition, the committee said, this would save the members from the “embarrassment” of removing the beacon when they cross inter-state borders and also while entering the boundaries of the national capital.

Should the government give in to this demand? We need to think carefully about the implications of 790 MPs moving around with beacon lights atop their cars in the national capital apart from the President, the Vice-President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker, the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Union ministers, Election Commissioners, judges, Election Commissioners and a host of other functionaries. Will this make our MPs safe or make the other protectees unsafe? This is a valid question in the light of the shocking incident a few days ago when highway robbers used a beacon-fitted SUV to intercept and hijack a truck near Kurukshetra. If Delhi roads are full of vehicles flaunting red beacons, who is the VIP and how will the police deal with criminals who may misuse these beacon lights?

Apart from the clamour for red beacons, there is another issue affecting the image of MPs – their unwillingness to adjust while traveling by train. If the latest fracas is anything to go by, one must pity railway officials, especially in the Delhi-Patna sector!

Every MP is entitled to a First Class AC pass and a II-Class AC pass for an attendant. However, when MPs wish to travel on a particular train at short notice, the railway authorities may not be able to accommodate them in the First Class AC Coach if all the seats are booked by bonafide passengers. Though the railways hold back a few seats for such emergencies, these seats are released at the originating station. Thus, if half a dozen MPs board a train mid-way through the journey without prior booking, the railway authorities have a problem on their hands. Since bonafide passengers cannot be thrown out of a train – though this has happened in the past – the railways usually offer II Class AC seats to MPs who hop on to trains at the last hour. But, this does not always solve the problem, because, having got used to First Class AC travel, MPs feel offended to travel in the Second Class AC Coach and often raise a ruckus during the journey and soon thereafter follow it up with a complaint to the Railway Minister. In all such situations the Railway Minister opts for the easy way out. He empathises with the complaining MPs, makes the right noises to prevent the incident from having its echo within the houses of Parliament and “suspends” some railway officials for being discourteous to Members of Parliament. Such incidents happen every once in a while and the Delhi-Patna route is specially prone to this problem.
The latest such incident happened in the first week of December when 18 MPs from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar complained to the Railway Minister, Mr Dinesh Trivedi that they were “mistreated” by railway officials. They complained that most of them were downgraded from First Class to Second Class AC coaches in the Patna- Delhi Rajdhani Express. Most of these MPs had boarded the train from Patna, while some of them took the train at Mughalsarai Station. They said only six of them were given First Class berths.

According to the Railways, six MPs were accommodated in the First Class AC coach. Of the 22 berths in the coach, 16 were booked by passengers. The remaining six were given to MPs. The spouses of these MPs and the other MPs were accommodated in the Second AC coach. Media reports said that the MPs’ protests led to stoppage of the train at Mughalsarai Junction for sometime. The Railway Minister promptly apologised to the MPs, ordered the transfer of the Chief Commercial Manager of East Central Railway for his failure to add an extra First Class AC Coach to accommodate the MPs. The minister also transferred a Passenger Traffic Manager and suspended the services of a senior official at Danapur Division.

Should we just sit back and watch our MPs throw their weight around? Are these demands – the red beacon lights and the First Class AC accommodation even when the coach is full, reasonable?  We need to tell our MPs some home truths about the present mood in the country. It would be facile to think that the groundswell of support for Anna Hazare comes only from the opponents of the Congress Party. The anger is directed at the political class as a whole and across the political spectrum. If simple living, high thinking was the credo of most politicians before independence and in the first two decades after 1947, ostentatious living and vulgar display of authority and wealth is the fashion of the 21 st Century. Similarly, the spirit of sacrifice and public service that dominated politics in the past has now been replaced with an approach that justifies self aggrandizement and the direct use of public office for self promotion. 

Since the moral framework has collapsed and the citizens are witnessing a virtual free-for-all in the political sphere, they are in search of a messiah outside the political space who can restore some values and decency in public life. Naturally the search is on outside the political sphere and the people have zeroed in on Anna Hazare. This anger is not just about the Lok Pal Bill and corruption. It is also directed against those who display an arrogance of power. In such an environment, the “Laal Batti” issue or the fuss over Second Class AC travel is really like showing a red rag to a bull. Our MPs must ponder.