India's desperate housewives know a thing or two about austerity. We know how to stretch a rupee: adding potatoes to meat curry, saving leftovers for future meals, storing used textbooks and uniforms for younger children and even recycling gift wrapping paper.
We were brought up to be frugal. The first generation of post-Independence India, our parents had seen their parents struggle for the freedoms we now take for granted. We ourselves grew up in pre-liberalised India where goods were scarce and aspirations modest. And we learned to cope without complaint.
In any case, the increase in most prices, whether of movie tickets or groceries, creeps up insidiously, week by week, month after month, a few bucks at a time. Milk, for instance, seems to agitate no one even though the price per litre has doubled in four years. The cheapest green vegetable in the market today costs R20 a kilo. But there is no national protest.
In terms of its psychological impact, the one-time 11.5% hike in petrol prices has been devastating. The night before, long queues had formed at petrol pumps as if tanking up would save cars and two-wheelers from Armageddon. An NDTV petition asking the government to rollback prices got 5,000 signatures in four hours flat. And the Opposition as well as the Congress's allies were quick to tap into the national rage, demanding a rollback and calling for demonstrations.
The steepest ever petrol hike goes beyond a simple question of balancing home budgets. In no time, it had become symbolic of all that was wrong with our governance.
Suddenly taxpayers, like astute consumers everywhere, had questions about the quality of government that we pay for. Was a protracted parliamentary debate on a cartoon of BR Ambedkar in National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks justified? Wasn't there something faintly obscene about full page chest-thumping (and extremely expensive) advertisements issued by anniversary-celebrating governments? And what to say of the unspeakable arrogance of entitled MPs who believe their lives would be incomplete without red beacons atop their government-issued cars (paid, of course, by our taxes), a move that was swiftly nixed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.
What is the quality of our leadership when those in the government as well as those in the Opposition seem intent on idle talk and scoring brownie points? Are we getting our money's worth in terms of governance?
When the mood turns sullen, nothing government does appears right. The issue is no longer just corruption. Governance (or the lack of it) is the new mantra. We understand the need for social welfare spending - well, some of us do - but are no longer prepared to accept that food grains continue to rot because we still have not invested in proper storage. We want India on the high table of international diplomacy but every news item of a foreign trip by a minister makes us see red. We are convinced of a conspiracy by politicians to nix the Lokpal Bill and feel cheated by this brazen cunning.
Perhaps it was guessing the public mood that finance minister Pranab Mukherjee had only days before the petrol hike spoken about the need for austerity measures. But austerity means different things to the housewife and to the government. For the housewife - and I am conscious that I am talking about those privileged Indians who can afford to pay taxes - it is a question of survival. But for the government, austerity is largely symbolic: no functions in five star hotels, travel by economy, not business class etc. Yet it's a symbolism that is needed and, when done effectively, it can be reassuring. During the oil shock of the 70s, Indira Gandhi - a genius when it came to political symbolism - went to work on a horse-drawn buggy. It was her way of telling her constituents: I am one of you.
The problem with the petrol hike is not so much the hike itself. It's a feeling that those contributing to our governance are not in touch with us. They live in a different world, doing little, accountable for less. They don't understand us. Worse, they don't want to.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer. The views expressed by the author are personal.