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Number plates, social mobility and power

It was reported last week that Public Relations and Public Affairs Minister Dr Mervyn Silva had written to the Inspector General of Police regarding the use by his staff of garage number plates.

Apparently President Mahinda Rajapaksa had ordered him to instruct his staff to remove the said CC number plates and use the registered plates issued by the Registrar of Motor Vehicles.

The minister had informed the IGP that he was using vehicles bearing WPC 2010/2011 garage plates for security reasons, and requested him to take appropriate action against those who misuse his good name by driving vehicles bearing WPC 2010/2011 plates.

This story highlights a growing and worrisome trend - all manner of people have been disguising their vehicles as those belonging to senior politicians and civil servants. This poses a problem not merely to the Police but also to other authorities and to the general public as a whole.

Potential attackers

The problem really began back in the 1980s, when terrorist attacks on government ministers became a real possibility. Security considerations led to politicians tinting the windows of their vehicles so they could not be identified by potential attackers.

The nouveau riche created by the economic restructuring of the post-1977 period jumped upon this example. By now, money and power had replaced education and culture as the standards to be looked up to.

A politician had status not as a representative of the people but as one who had authority and wealth.

The important legislator was not an erudite and sophisticated one but a moneyed one. O tempora, o mores!

In the 1970s a joke circulated about a nouveau riche person speaking about a cobra which had entered his house.

It had circumambulated his living room, passing by, under or through his various new and expensive possessions. This gag lampooned the vulgarity of the novi homines.

Tinted glass windows

By the 1980s, this was not considered a joking matter. Possessing ‘in’ products provided one with status, be it a television projector screen or one of those brick-sized and shaped mobile telephones. And they were nothing if they could not be seen by outsiders.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so said Charles Caleb Colton,

an obscure cleric and writer known only for this epigrammatic aphorism (but note that he was speaking precisely about the foibles of the nouveau riche).

At this time politicians were provided with security details and it became common to see the powerful riding in a saloon car with tinted glass windows, followed by a security jeep with tinted glass windows.

So an up-market saloon car, a Mercedes Benz or a BMW or a Jaguar and a jeep-type vehicle of some sort, a Pajero or later a Montero or Range Rover or Prado or even a Ssangyong became de rigueur. And every vehicle required tinted glass windows - not so much to ensure anonymity, but to provide its opposite, societal prominence.

And the stakes started getting even higher as the battle was joined for greater and greater celebrity through confusion with the powerful. Every nuance of the security detail was copied with the assiduousness of an Eliza Doolittle being schooled by Professor Higgins.

Traffic offences

The security vehicle invariably used its headlights in the daytime, as a signal of the gravity and earnestness of its intent. So the imitators did the same. The security vehicle bypassed normal traffic to speed its parliamentary payload on its course. Ditto.

The most recent aberration has been the VIP (or even better, VVIP) parking sticker, displayed prominently on the windscreen long after the event for which it was issued.

Private Secretaries, Co-ordinating Officers, Press Secretaries and even peons are regularly importuned by various distant relatives, friends of the family or even casual acquaintances of their boss to provide the supplicants with this manna from heaven.

So far so good. The bulk of the impersonators got the occasional thrill by going through the red lights at a junction, or by parking in a no-parking zone, or overtaking on a double line, or any of the other traffic offences beloved of the denizens of this fair isle.

Except that some of the mimics of the rich and powerful didn’t stop at gaining social acceptance. Some of them began to turn their replication of the personas of politicians to personal fiduciary advantage.

For example, it became quite common for officials trying to stop the illegal filling of a marsh or the felling of a forest by individuals arriving in black Prados with tinted windows being told ‘leave us alone, this is the work of such-and-such a minister’.

The President’s timely action in dealing with the misuse of garage number plates has perhaps stopped an epidemic in its tracks.

However, the long-term solution to this burgeoning problem will be to prevent the impunity with which politicians and their employees use security concerns to bypass normal rules and regulations.

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