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No Flying Without Neo-Maharajahs

OF what use is power if you can’t flaunt it! The ballyhoo about being “(wo)men of the masses”, mingling with them and breaking out of protocol notwithstanding, politicians often do the opposite and keep themselves above the masses! You cannot be a VVIP in India worth anything if you can’t hold an airplane hostage to your whims. You must ignore the urgency and sufferings of other passengers. A 57-minute delay on a flight is hardly news. But when a VVIP causes it, it becomes worthy of news. It happened with Air India flight from Mumbai to Newark (US) on Monday, and the man in the centre of the storm is Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis. Records revealed that the delay, which was blamed on “technical/operational reasons and also ATC”, was actually because of a snafu where his principal secretary had forgotten to carry his old passport which had his valid US visa. How casual can CM’s principal secretary be who does not even check if he has the requisite documents with him! But then he knew the rulebook will be rewritten for him and the masses can wait. And what did the “people’s CM” do? He was adamant about travelling with his full delegation. And that meant at least eight passengers and 14 pieces of luggage from two different containers had to be offloaded and a new load sheet prepared.

Fadnavis showed his convenience came above the convenience of a planeload of passengers. And while the Congress in Maharashtra is demanding an inquiry and hyperventilating that “the reputation of our country is at stake,” no one believes for an instant that their chief minister or another minister would not have done the same if faced with a similar situation. Basically what the Fadnavis story and the Kiren Rijiju story show is not so much of any great moral failure on part of those two politicians but a system where VIPs routinely regard public airlines as their private convenience, so much so that even the airline officials have learnt better to keep them in good humour, rather than court vindictive action.

If Fadnavis made Air India do what he wanted, Rijiju says he had no idea if some passengers were asked to disembark Air India flight from Leh to Delhi to accommodate him and his associates! Can we believe him? The fact that Air India thought it fit to ask three aam aadmi passengers to get off the plane to make room for the VIPs says a lot about how an airline feels compelled to crawl when merely asked to bend. Who wants to be on the wrong side of a powerful minister? The flight was delayed by an hour which, in the normal course of things, would have again been hardly newsworthy, but now it was owing to VVIP’s claim to treatment ‘above the masses’. Rijiju blames Air India for having pre-poned the flight and says he arrived on time to find the doors closed. Perhaps there was a communication gap and someone forgot to inform Rijiju. And Rijiju can demand to know why that happened. But if a common man had been in Rijiju’s place and shown up at the airport, would they have held back a plane that had shut its door and was ready for take-off? That’s what shows the difference between “men of the masses” and the masses.

If you thought only politicians in power misuse their clout, sample this: former union minister and Congress MP in Rajya Sabha Renuka Chowdhury was recently travelling to Hyderabad on Air India’s Chicago-Delhi-Hyderabad flight which was scheduled to take off at 7 pm. Chowdhury had turned up for boarding after the scheduled departure time, but not before the pilot had missed his turn in the departure sequence. Since her baggage had already been checked in, it was not possible to retrieve it at the last minute. Air India explained unconvincingly that they did not have an option but to wait for her. Chowdhury finally turned up at 7.04 pm. But since the pilot had missed his window, they had to wait for some 45 minutes before the flight could take off. It was alleged that Chowdhury had gone shopping which is why the flight was held up. Being a ‘seasoned’ politician, Chowdhury is asking for proof to establish “where I went for shopping.” She blamed her late coming on someone she requested to bring a cart to take her to the departure gate. The guy took time in arriving with the cart! Like the VVIP-forced delay of other flights, the delay of this Air India flight too was sought to be explained on grounds of technical problems. Indeed, technical problem is turning out to be a euphemism for allowing room for convenience of ministers and former ministers.

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