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Saturday, August 3, 2002

Traffic violations are more the norm than the exception anywhere in India. And in this one area, I am afraid the average citizen is as guilty as the rich and influential.   But that it should make news in our city is by itself newsworthy. So why and how did it make news? It became news because the driver of a Swaraj Mazda van was pulled up by a traffic sub-inspector and given a Rs100/- challan. It also happened that the Mayor himself was traveling in the van! The officer dutifully dropped the challan into the car.  The aghast Mayor promptly called the Joint Commissioner of Traffic.

One story goes that the official sought forgiveness on behalf of his officer and offered to pay the challan. Another paper reported that he said that there was nothing he could do now that the challan had been issued, but if sent to him he would examine it. One other paper reported that the Mayor told the accompanying reporters (another reason why it became news - the mayor was traveling with a group of reporters and their video cameras to inspect the works for the approaching Bonalu festival) that the police official apologized because the officer did not know that the Mayor was in the car.

This raises two questions – why did the Mayor have to call up the Commissioner? Did he feel that he is no ordinary citizen and hence above the law?

The second question is why did the police official have to seek forgiveness or apologize on behalf of the officer who merely did his job? Why did he have to add that his officer didn’t know that the Mayor was in the van? Was he implying that had he known, his officer should have behaved differently? Does this mean that the law is applicable only for us ordinary mortals and those in government can brazenly disregard it?

This attitude of contempt for rule of law had resulted in politicians, bureaucrats and the well-connected behaving with shocking vulgarity, pomp and brazenness, leading them to believe that they can get away with murder. This is amply illustrated in the notorious Nanda case in Delhi and many other such instances of our public servants behaving like medieval monarchs. Contrast it with Tony Blair’s son and George Bush’s daughter who were both promptly booked for minor infractions of law. Rule of law has become so scarce in our country, that when an officer does his job it is regarded as a heroic act requiring wide coverage.

People’s representatives shouldn’t think that having to conform to law is humiliating. It just would add to the dignity of the person. Recently someone was telling me a story of Ajim Premji of Wipro. He was meeting Mr Lalla of the Dhorabji Tata Trust. Aware of Premji’s unassuming behaviour, Mr Lalla sent down his secretary to make sure he was not delayed at the reception. Unfortunately the secretary herself missed the man already standing in line waiting to be told where to go - because she was looking for a man in a suit and missed the casually dressed grey haired gentleman. After waiting and looking around for a few minutes, she went back to report his absence to her boss. Imagine her consternation when she discovered later that Premji had taken the regular visitor’s  path – standing in line and filling a slip and stating the purpose of his visit. When big people do what the common man does, their image is only enhanced but never diminished.

The mayor would have won the support of the people if only he gracefully accepted the mistake on behalf of his driver and paid the challan. There was no reason for him to call up the senior officials  and inform him of the incident. Neither was it necessary for the official to offer to make the payment on behalf of the mayor. It is time we demanded of our officials, elected or appointed, humility and respect for law. And it is time we respected ourselves enough to stand up to those in authority. A democracy is safe only when we treat those in power as our equals, not as our masters, and recognize them as public servants, not monarchs.