A Valhalla For The ex-VVIPs

Updated: Jul 29 2002, 05:30am hrs
When the late Sarvepalli Radhakrishnans tenure as President of India came to an end, he retired to the comfort of his family home Girija in Chennais Mylapore. When the late Neelam Sanjiva Reddys term ended he went away to remote Anantapur, his hometown in Andhra Pradesh, and lived in semi-urban environs. But that was in a different time.

Today, every retired VVIP, the Indianism denoting a very, very important person, wants to retire in the comfort of Lutyens Delhi. Some say it all actually started with the then Congress governments decision to convert Teen Murti House into a Nehru Memorial Museum. Soon after came the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri and the decision to let his widow and family convert 11, Janpath into the Lal Bahadur Memorial. Even though Morarji Desai went away to live in his home in Mumbai, Indira Gandhis home was turned into a memorial and Jagjivan Rams daughter did ditto-ditto to retain a sprawling government home.

All this was way before ex-Presidents and ex-Prime Ministers started seeking official retirement quarters in Delhi. The first to set a new trend was Ms Sonia Gandhi who opted to stay on in her husbands home at 10, Janpath. His assassination also meant that along with the house she secured Z class security cover and today lives and travels like a head of government.

If Ms Gandhis is an exceptional case, that of former President R Venkatraman is unprecedented. He in fact moved to Chennai after completing his tenure at Rashtrapati Bhavan and came back to live in government accommodation in New Delhi, becoming a regular fixture at the capitals many parties and conclaves. The social life of ex-Presidents must be boring in far off places.

Once Mr Venkatraman set a precedent who can blame Mr K R Narayanan for seeking accommodation in Lutyens Delhi even though he has a comfortable four-bedroom house on the Media Centre campus a few miles outside Delhi on the Gurgaon road. Retired Presidents can not live in such middle class comfort howsoever humble their origins or howsoever genuine their concern for the dispossessed.

Mercifully we do not yet have a surfeit of ex-Presidents, but look at the small army of ex-Prime Ministers squatting all over Lutyens Delhi. Five to be precise. Messers V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, P V Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda and I K Gujral. All with black cat commandos and two security escort cars. Since they frequently travel by air and some visit Delhis exclusive clubs they seem to need gun-totting gaurds more to protect them from irate citizens than dreaded terrorists.

When heads of state and government turn squatters who can blame lesser mortals like the late Phoolan Devis scheming husband for trying to convert her Ashoka Road residence in the heart of Delhi into a Phoolan Memorial. Fortunately for the unhoused politicians of the day this house grab attempt was foiled once elections in Uttar Pradesh were over!

Drive around New Delhi and there are so many government houses with names of ex-VVIps long dead and gone adorning them, some with a memorial society in place others with no such pretences. Less fortunate politicians switch political loyalty to remain with whichever party is in power so as to retain government accommodation. At least one senior ex-Cabinet minister is known to have changed party loyalties for the sake of housing.

Why blame politicians. High profile officials, some even espousing privatisation, the downsizing of government and an end to all non-merit subsidies think they merit subsidised government accommodation even after they have left government, in one case to earn a fat salary in dollars in a global financial institution!

As other senior citizens make similar claims, the young and active civil servants and holders of public office constantly in search of adequate accommodation will have to move out to suburban Delhi as Lutyens Delhi gets converted into a vast retirement home for ex-VVIPs.