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Back to basics

If the current austerity drive has to go beyond photo-ops and TV debates, then it must focus on accountability and transparency, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Sep 19, 2009 01:20 IST

Was 1991 the year that changed India’s attitude to money? Economic reforms made wealth creation not just legitimate, but an aspiration to both respect and emulate. Middle-class Indians jumped through hoops (and sadly, still do) every time an Ambani, Mittal, or Tata made it to the international power lists. Perhaps we were just relieved to not be stereotyped in picture postcard images of poverty. Or perhaps we were in too much of a hurry to secede from the grim truth of how most of our country lived; we were, in other words, trying to create a parallel and cocooned universe.

The raging debate over ‘austerity’ and moderation in public life has made me re-examine conventional assumptions about class and wealth. Personally, like many others who grew up in the pre-liberalisation years, I find displays of money distasteful and embarrassing. I’ve often wondered whether this is an archaic and irrational squeamishness but like other people I know, I think flashy and flamboyant spending can border on the crass. It could, of course, be a generational attitude.

Before India opened up to malls and McDonalds, our school and college years were shaped by a certain intellectual snootiness. Sometimes we carried this self-consciousness to absurd limits. As a school student, I remember fibbing about what car we had at home. My father had brought back a second-hand Mercedes on a transfer of residence from the US after a long posting there. But I continued to say the car at home was a Fiat, just because it sounded more ‘regular’. St. Stephen’s may now be taking the hit for Shashi Tharoor’s brand of over-clever humour but, ironically, my old college was perhaps most responsible for inducing an instinctive reverse snobbery about big money. And even today, as India’s corporates have catapulted the country into the global imagination, N.R. Narayana Murthy and his wife Sudha evoke a qualitatively different measure of respect in me for their firm and genuine simplicity.

So, to the extent that Sonia Gandhi’s austerity drive has brought back a measure of self-consciousness about how people in public life spend their money, I think it’s something to be grateful for. India’s rising middle-class — and I plead guilty as well — have all but forgotten how the bulk of this country lives. And if our elected representatives are forced by party diktats to never forget that, then that’s probably a good thing. But, all us middle-class folk who are so fond of mindless political bashing may do well to re-examine our own attitudes towards money as well. If, for example, we are going to judge our netas for ostentatious weddings, shouldn’t we be judging ourselves as well? Otherwise it’s just plain hypocritical to expect a Spartan, Gandhian austerity from our politicians, while having a completely different value system for ourselves.

And yet, the problem with the Congress’s austerity drive is that it’s got trapped in the worst sort of literalism. Frankly, nobody wants to see S.M. Krishna trudging 15 hours across the globe in a commercial airliner at this age and stage in his life. And it’s a bit bizarre to have Sharad Pawar fly in to Delhi on the much-touted economy seat, only to be driven away in a car that costs more than most Indians would earn in 50 years. I don’t think the Indian citizen cares whether our politicians fly economy or club class. What bugs us more is that an MP or a Minister gets special treatment at airports and is able to swan his way in, past long lines, with a posse of sycophant handlers. In other words it’s the patronage of the political system that is far more undemocratic than disparities of wealth. We may like to romanticise the cultural values of the years before the economy opened up, but we have forgotten how ultra-powerful the government was back then. They may have bought all-economy fares, but every babu and mantri got upgraded anyway. That was patronage at work again.

And it’s this that the present austerity plan must focus on, if it is to have any real meaning. The Indian voter doesn’t care how you fly, where you eat, and whether you wear khadi. But we do care about obese governments that are bigger than they need to be. We get angry at taxpayers’ money being used to redecorate your offices in wood and marble. We want to know why government delegations are as flabby as they are. And while we don’t grudge you spending your own money, sometimes we wonder how you made that money, and we feel we should have the right to ask. And most of all, we resent you for breaking the line. At airports, with telephone connections, train tickets, power cuts — all the stuff that represents our daily battles.

So, if austerity has to be anything more than the subject of yet another television debate, let it focus on accountability and transparency. Perhaps the most path-breaking contribution of this government was the Right To Information Act. Now, people actually feel empowered to demand answers to the questions they have. It’s that sort of policy shift that contributes way more to a sense of egalitarianism than whether MPs fly economy or not.

Otherwise, as sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan said, conspicuous consumption will just be replaced by conspicuous austerity. And faux attempts at plebian moments will make for great photographs. But little else.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

The views expressed by the author are personal