They looked more like the barmy army than any credible political alliance. On stage at a rally during the Haryana election campaign, JD(U) president Sharad Yadav, JD(S) chief HD Deve Gowda and RLD leader Ajit Singh clearly had little in common politically except one issue on which the majority of our netas are united. That of handing over a Lutyens bungalow, until now occupied by Ajit Singh, far in excess of his time, to be made a memorial to his father and the late kisan leader and former prime minister, Chaudhury Charan Singh.
I find it really hard to believe that dear Ajit is overcome by the desire to venerate his father’s memory. If that was the case, he should be working zealously for farmers’ rights, not trying to grab prime real estate under the guise of making it a memorial. If this memorial trend continues, soon most of central Delhi will be a vast array of edifices in remembrance of our dear departed leaders. And since, move on they must, there is no end to this.
But Ajit is not alone in his penchant to secure a nice, spacious bungalow devoted to Daddy’s memory. Former speaker Meira Kumar has been trying with great dedication to hang on to a bungalow that, she says, could be a museum to her father, Jagjivan Ram.
Indira Gandhi already has a memorial in her former home where she was tragically felled by assassins. Our former prime ministers and presidents enjoy the state’s benefits for life and those include housing bang in the middle of Delhi.
The Brits, from whom we derive our parliamentary system, are far more evenhanded when it comes to their leaders. Lose an election and it is goodbye 10 Downing Street. No lingering on, packing the dinner set or trying to usurp a nifty house in, say, Hampstead Heath. You fend for yourself. If you happened to be as savvy as former prime minister Tony Blair, you will find yourself a cosy sinecure as an envoy for something or the other, get on the lecture circuit or set up your own foundation.
Bill Clinton, former US president, has raked in millions for lectures since demitting office. We expect the same from the charismatic Barack Obama. But apart from a state pension and security for up to 10 years, the US president does not become a huge burden on the taxpayer. It is not as though our worthies, whose assets undergo a dramatic economic transformation upwards once in office, cannot look after themselves. It is that they have a huge sense of entitlement, that the state must take them under its capacious and perpetual wing.
This, in a country where a vast number of people don’t even have a roof over their heads. Our netas forget that they are meant to serve the public, opting to hop on the gravy train forever once elected. Yes, I agree that it may be difficult to provide proper security for a former head of state if he or she were to migrate to the boondocks. But, surely the party, not the state, ought to find them suitable housing.
In the rich Nordic countries, politicians, even while in power, get little by way of perks for themselves. Here our lads and ladies get all sorts of privileges, including having the road cleared when they set out to attend an event or meet someone.
We must remember our great leaders, we must try and emulate them. But we certainly don’t need bungalow-memorials to remind us of them. And let’s be honest, many of them did not really leave an indelible mark on our nation such that we need to revere them for all time to come. Some of them were eminently forgettable, pushed into high office by propitious political circumstance. The cost of maintaining our netas in office is almost crippling on the exchequer so it seems unfair that we should keep paying up for relatives who are in essence parasites. Ajit Singh gave himself away a bit by trying to hang on to that prime piece of real estate after he lost the election. It was only when the new government put the screws on him to vacate it that he intensified his demand for a memorial.
In western countries, it is not unusual for ministers to take the local transport. But here we see that almost all of them cite security reasons in order to travel in a convoy and barricade themselves behind high walls and gates. All the better to serve the people with, my dear.
So, I think our netas should try a different way of remembering the departed.
Organise lectures or seminars in their memory where the speakers can take up the causes espoused by the late leader. Plant trees in their memory, at least you will be doing some environmental good, pay for the education of 10 girl children, organise a clean-up drive in your constituency on the late leader’s birthday. The possibilities are endless and not damaging to the taxpayers’ wallet.
In fact, it would be cheaper for the government to buy a gated colony to park former PMs and presidents than for them to be rattling around in Lutyens’ Delhi. They have no right to any housing but since old habits die hard, this might be a better option.
But honestly, given the fact that our worthies have become so accustomed to being kept in a style they had probably never dreamt of, I cannot see them giving in without an almighty fight. In fact, they are unlikely to feel at home anywhere else but right in the centre of things and this clearly goes for their relatives as well.
Politics, clearly then, is the best career option. There is no retirement age, and in case you are called to the great parliament in the sky, you will go happy in the knowledge that your near and dear ones will be living in the spacious confines of your former home in the gracious surroundings of the once imperial capital.