Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Look here , I am austere !

Suddenly the latest fad in Indian political circles is to go austere. People who own property and assets worth billions go for this tokenism and travel by economy class. We should be indebted to them for joining our ranks perhaps. By not staying in five stars (when press is looking) and by not flying by chartered flights it seems (or so the media claims) they are leading towards cost cutting in these difficult days of drought and recession. Incidentally it is not the first time in our political history that politicians are stepping down to match the lifestyle of people they represent. In the war times leaders of those years appealed people to cut on one meal to save food grain (If one person gives up one meal in a day, some other person gets his only meal of the day") and people complied. Many leaders during freedom struggle also took simple lifestyles despite having means to live lavishly. I am sure it helps them in connecting with the people. But Then, I think it’s not the same feeling anymore.
The big cynic in me fails to ignore the difference. Why I do not find this newly invented hallow of austerity real or even admirable ? Perhaps the difference between real cost cutting and this token austerity is too big to ignore.
In the pre independence days, if Gandhi turned into a “half naked fakir” I do not think he did it for publicity alone. He was mocked and ridiculed by most of his peers but it was his conviction in simplicity that made him continue the way he did. He did not do this only for a day or two, it remained a lifelong practice for him. I firmly believe , it was not merely a style statement but a deep felt conviction in his case. So was the case of former prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri , who was an austere man to begin with and is said to have died, leaving behind a loan and no swanky cars and houses for his family. The tokenism and the need to adopt such simplicity as a style statement perhaps got footing with Nehru. A born rich, he was always used to a luxurious lifestyle and gave it up only to keep appearances of the prevailing philosophy of the time . No wonder, his family even after four generations is keeping up appearances of austerity with matching (in) sincerity.
The funny part about the whole austerity episode this time is that it started off from a stupid media report about Shashi Tharoor and SM Krishna, both of whom were actually paying their own money to stay in five star hotels. Interestingly both of these ministers have legal ways to have means to afford such lifestyle. But the veterans of Indian politics make them realize that in a country like ours appearances matter much more than reality. My only comment on this particular episode of misguided media proactivism is what Confucius said - In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of." No wonder both ministers shifted to more modest looking places immediately.
I wonder where these journalists are when the parliamentary committee members draw their TA/DA and stay at 5 star resorts in any city they visited for the official work- shamelessly at the expense of government departments? I have yet to see one MP (even communists) who refused this hospitality despite that strictly worded letter fom Lok Sabha Secretariat that arrives before their visits telling us that our hon’ble representatives are expected to stay in government guest houses and get TA/DA for these visits . A study of Parliamentary Hindi Committee’s tours on exotic locations across India would be a good sample to test for this. Not only that, these token austerity measures are not going to lessen the number of vehicles PSUs are providing to the controlling ministries and their political masters. Of course blinded by the holy light of such tokenism our leaders would fail to notice these vehicles parked in all government buildings. They also fail to notice the rising figures of non plan expenditure in all government departments. All it needs is a careful reading of Expenditure budget to realize that crores of rupees are being spent for each minister’s entertainment and travelling. I wonder why no one questions official dinners and even after budget press conferences being held in Five star hotels? All senior journalists accompanying PM and President are treated lavishly on each foreign visit .Who is financing these? But it is in the interest of holy trinity- politician, bureaucrats and businessmen(including media) to overlook the real issue and keep mum on such practices . Unfortunately real issues seldom make good copy. And in such scenario Rahul and Sonia Gandhi’s foolish austerity measures look laughable to me.