An Indian lawmaker with a business class air ticket boards an all-economy Air India flight, fights with attendants for not honoring his ticket, refuses to disembark on landing (thereby delaying the next flight for 40 minutes), slaps an airline manager with slippers, is threatened with a ban… but is then finally allowed to fly without tendering an apology.
This bizarre episode has left many Indians wondering whether there are different sets of laws for the common man and lawmakers. Any ordinary air passenger who misbehaved like this would have been arrested either before take-off or at destination.
But MP Ravindra Gaikwad was no ordinary passenger. He is a member of the pro-Hindu Shiva Sena party and an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in power both nationally and in Maharashtra, his home state.
While no one expected a life-long flight ban on Gaikwad for his unruly behavior, there were rumors that he may be grounded for at least six months by the national carrier to send a tough message to other MPs.
But the federal government had its own political imperatives to contend with. It needed the backing of Shiv Sena for the upcoming presidential and vice-presidential elections, for passing bills and for implementing poll promises – including a pledge to build a new Ram temple at the disputed Ayodhya site in Uttar Pradesh.
So a day after Gaikwad expressed his “regret” to Parliament through a prepared speech, the civil aviation ministry on Friday directed Air India to revoke an intended travel ban on him. Private airlines followed suit.
On Monday, Gaikwad booked a business class seat on the same route between Pune and Delhi – but then changed his plans and boarded a train instead.
What shocked the nation was the lawmaker’s lack of remorse as he bragged on TV about hitting Air India official Sukumar Raman “25 times” with his slippers. Gaikwad even said he wanted to push his victim down the air-stair.
TV channels aired a video clip showing an Air India flight attendant pleading with Gaikwad to disembark at Delhi airport as cabins had to be cleaned between flights and over 100 passengers were waiting to board the plane, to fly to Goa. But the MP refused to leave the airplane until a top Air India official visited him.
The clip then shows the lawmaker shoving Raman and the flight attendant raising an alarm. Raman’s eyeglasses were broken in the melee. Later, talking to media, he said god alone can save the country if this is the culture and behavior of lawmakers.
The incident sparked intense debate in newsrooms, but in Parliament, lawmakers initially tried to not broach the subject. When it was finally discussed, most MPs backed Gaikwad by saying no rule exists to impose flight bans on lawmakers.
In his speech, Gaikwad told Parliament he was the real victim and he slapped Raman only after the official insulted him.
Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju’s was the only voice of criticism. He said the safety of air staff should not be compromised. The government bowed to Sena, however, directing the ministry to allow the MP to fly.
Some fear the decision not to ban Gaikwad could embolden other MPs to misbehave on flights.
Air India’s Delhi-Kolkata flight was delayed by 30 minutes on April 7 because of lawmaker Dola Sen getting into an argument with flight attendants over allowing her wheelchair-bound mother a seat near the emergency exit.