IF THERE IS ONE OBJECT OF GENERAL DISDAIN, CRITICISM AND fury, it is the VIP syndrome. For vicarious pleasure we devour stories capturing VIP arrogance and inconsideration enjoying instances when the media takes jibes at them. Horror stories of roughing up public servants on duty and brandishing their band of rough-tough followers have become commonplace. Some VIPs have become famous for habitually tormenting the public with late arrivals, pontificating away long past the allotted time, even preventing a visit to the restroom for fear of reprisal from accompanying security fiends. So, on rare occasions when VIPs do display good grace, humour and a personal touch, it appears remarkable, certainly something to write about.
I recall a few such instances from my own humdrum life in government. A conference of home secretaries and directors-general of police was to be inaugurated by the prime minister. During the coffee break I found myself edged into the corner as I battled to grab a cup. Suddenly the sea of humanity parted behind me and I could see the prime minister walking down in my direction. Voices around me were saying, “She is here, Madam, she is here”. In that crowded hail surrounded by the top police brass and much more, Indira Gandhi had found time to notice my presence and seek me out. Although I had never met her, she smiled warmly and with an unmistakable twinkle in her eye inquired, “Do the police listen to you?” I could see any number of directors-general of police looking expectantly at my face. What I replied is not important. What is important is that the prime minister of India found the time to take note of the presence of a woman officer, a gesture that spoke volumes about her powers of observation and much more. By seeking me out she did me proud, but more importantly she conveyed a message to all the luminaries present. Are the police not expected to listen?
Some years later, I was posted in Delhi as the resident commissioner of Goa. We were celebrating Goa Day at the state guesthouse on Amrita Shergill Marg. Fresh fish was being marinated from the morning and the aroma of spices pervaded the air. The guest list, an outcome of invitations sent out by the governor and the chief minister of Goa, was a veritable list of Delhi’s ‘Who’s Who’. The most important guest was Rajiv Gandhi though he was no longer the prime minister.
Well before 8p.m. a silver grey Esteem zoomed into the driveway and Rajiv Gandhi emerged, all smiles. He had driven himself to Goa Sadan and was unfazed by his early arrival. As he strode onto the lawns I valiantly searched for ways to keep him occupied till the guests (and hosts) arrived. Leave alone the governor and the chief minister not even the livened bearers were around to fuss over the former prime minister. As I rushed forward to introduce myself, the band of chattering women receptionists swooned and wailed, “Madam, he is soooo handsome”. I shushed them into place and welcomed him hoping he would not notice the higgledy-piggledy gaggle of half-clad dancers gaping at him from behind the bushes. I need not have worried. Rajiv Gandhi was disarmingly boyish and, sensing my consternation, asked me conspiratorially, “I hope you are going to serve prawns,” adding, “I’ve come early so that I don’t miss anything.” Later in the evening, he winked at me as he tucked into the jumbo prawns with gusto. What brought him to the event well before time remains a mystery, but in that one evening he stole our hearts. His informality and unpretentiousness had done the trick.
Years later, the Queen of England was visiting Delhi (the infamous ‘dirty city’ visit — many would recall). The British High Commission had invited a select cross-section of Indians for the At Home to meet her. Posted in the Ministry of Health, I was among those selected for this honour. A marshal in a sharkskin suit complete with gold braid and epaulettes asked me my name, practiced its pronunciation, and instructed me where to stand to be presented to Her Majesty. I took my designated place in the row of selected invitees and waited to meet the ‘happy and glorious’ monarch, as their anthem sonorously claims. On the dot of 5p.m. the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh stepped onto the lawns of the high commissioner’s residence and parted, he to the left and she towards us. I was introduced to the Queen and as she shook my hand she asked smilingly, “And what do you think of DFID?” (That was the acronym for the British Government Department responsible for International Development). Before I could respond, the Queen leaned over and said something jocular in highly aspirated Queen’s English, which I could not decipher. She burst into laughter at the end of the story and I too laughed lustily, not knowing what I was guffawing at. As she moved on to meet other guests, I was surrounded by hordes of onlookers all of whom wanted to know what the big joke was. Those on Her Majesty’s service showered me with kudos for making the Queen laugh. Overnight I became the reigning star. Although the fame was short-lived it was an unforgettable gift from a VIP
Later in my career, -1 had occasion to confront a particularly 1e cantankerous woman. Used to having her own way, she was ro breathing fire and fury because my department had officially turned va down an unworkable proposal from her. The lady’s connections
were phenomenal and I awaited the inevitable rap on the knuckles. One afternoon, my private secretary buzzed the telephone and said, “The prime minister will speak to you.” Since such eminent persona use hotlines when they choose to speak to bureaucrats, I assumed it was the usual overzealousness of my private secretary who had got it wrong. The possibility that the virago was hitting a fly (me) with a hammer (the prime minister) did not even cross my mind. I held the phone in trepidation until I heard the soft, tell amiable voice of A.B. Vajpayee. “Turn se sambhala jayega mamla?” I knew immediately what he meant. Shorn of its simplicity the tim question merely asked, “Are you capable of handling the situation?”
And in that message lay nuances that a thousand words could not have captured. Dutifully I replied, “Bilkul, Sir”, (Absolutely Sir). I knew that he was simply warning me to be tactful and not let things escalate. His gentle endearing style made me find a way, without compromising on the essential point under dissension.
This essay is not about frivolity but gives insights about how a few people in real positions of authority conduct themselves; how they make others feel special at no cost to themselves. If only our blunderbusses could understand the virtues of understatement, the art of giving the personal touch and putting people at ease, they might be remembered long after their days of glory have ceased to be a memory.