The Oxford English Dictionary defines austerity as “moral sternness” and “severe simplicity”. Bearing that in mind, I want to make a few points about our present obsession with this subject.
First, austerity is either a practical life style or a philosophical approach. But, in either case, it’s not necessarily a virtue just as its opposite, indulgence, is not always a vice. Neither is definitionally right, wrong or better than the other.
Second, ostentatious austerity, by which I mean the deliberate public display of it, is as much a form of showing-off as flaunting your spending. It’s also, I suspect, a manifestation of priggish moral self-righteousness.
Third, the rich living simply may be one way of showing sympathy for the poor. But I doubt if it makes the latter feel better. For instance, will farmers in distress have been comforted by the fact Sonia Gandhi now flies economy and not business class and Rahul travels by train?
Fourth, if you want to set an example it must be a meaningful one. If television channels are correct in claiming that five rows of seats were reserved to enable Sonia Gandhi to travel economy and the only saving when her son went by train was Rs. 445, then their efforts are more akin to vaudeville farce than effective cost-cutting.
Fifth, if politicians have a duty to be austere, as Rahul Gandhi has said (Chennai, September 10), then why is he, a bachelor, living in 12 Tughlaq Lane, one of the largest government-owned bungalows in Delhi? I’m told houses of that size are reserved for cabinet ministers. In that case, he’s not even entitled to it.
Sixth, if they are serious about austerity and not simply deluding us, why do ministers need parquet floors, Italian marble tiles and silk carpets when they refurnish their offices? Or does austerity not apply to what others can’t see?
Seventh, does it make sense to require our foreign minister to fly halfway around Europe to reach Minsk thus ensuring he’s pooped on arrival and unable to get down to immediate work? He is, after all, 78 and age does take its toll.
Eighth, if austerity is the order of the day why should the prime minister be excluded from its enforcement? After all, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have often flown across the Atlantic on commercial airlines. And they did so without boasting of their austerity. So will Manmohan Singh travel on a scheduled flight when he departs for Pittsburgh later this month?
Ninth, if Sarojini Naidu could jest that it cost the nation a fortune to keep the Mahatma in poverty, why can’t Shashi Tharoor make jokes about travelling cattle class? Either the Congress Party has lost its sense of humour or its Miss Primms don’t realise that is how economy class is referred to jocularly the world over?
Tenth, does austerity in these times defy economic logic? In the middle of a downturn you need to boost demand by increasing spending. If those who can afford to spend suddenly decide not to, you could seriously affect sectors like transport, travel, hotels and retail. They constitute 40 per cent of the service industry which, in turn, is over 50 per cent of our economy. So is austerity economic wisdom or folly?
A possible conclusion: doesn’t this mad scramble to appear austere seem like an attempt to fool the voter and, also, disrespectful of those who really are poor?