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Keeping it simple

Downsizing government, fighting corruption and snatching away privileges of the political elite are other, better ways of being austere, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: Sep 18, 2009 01:24 IST

In this period of competitive austerity, there can be nothing more tiresome than a sanctimonious politician. With netas offering to travel in the cargo holds of aircraft, a senior minister called up to say, “I haven’t taken salary from the Government of India for the last five years, what greater evidence can there be of my commitment to austerity!” What he forgot is that such is his personal wealth that a government salary was loose change that he could easily forego.

Unfortunately, in the cacophony over our netas’ flying preferences, we’re ending up engaging in farcical paise-pinching. If the government and the Congress are serious about curbing expenditure in times of drought, then flying cattle (sorry, aam admi) class on a low cost airline is hardly the answer. The saving of a few thousand rupees is the kind of effete tokenism India seems to specialise in.

If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — himself almost Gandhian in his habits — was serious about tightening the sarkari belt then he should have downsized the government. After all, why does he need a 78-member council of ministers, including around 38 ministers of state? Cutting his ministry by half will be a much bigger saving.

Moreover, the real hidden costs confronting a government come from the corruption that is endemic to the state system. If Singh is truly serious about austerity, why doesn’t he sack those in the government who stand accused of corruption? Why, does a Buta Singh remain the chairman of the SC/ST commission even after the CBI arrested his son for abusing his father’s position to amass crores? Why does a minister accused of manipulating spectrum allocation continue to retain his ministry?

Then there are those who believe that government privileges are lifelong entitlements. Why, does a Ram Vilas Paswan continue to occupy prime property in Lutyens’ land for over four months after his party lost the Lok Sabha polls?

A recent RTI petition revealed that about 14 defeated MPs, including eight ministers, from the previous Lok Sabha continue to occupy their bungalows. Why doesn’t the prime minister’s office act against them? Or against those who make lavish renovations to their government houses in violation of all laws?

Downsizing government, acting against the corrupt and snatching away the privileges of the political elite require courage and conviction — qualities that often go missing when confronted with the compulsions of coalition politics. Forcing S.M. Krishna and Shashi Tharoor to vacate five-star hotels was always a soft option. Neither of them can be remotely described as a mass politician — one a dinosaur, the other a debutante MP, both of whom were easy targets for a political leadership determined to make a point.

In a sense, both Krishna and Tharoor represent a certain class of elite English-speaking politicians who are now an endangered species. One is a tennis-playing Fulbright scholar. The other, a ‘twittering’ former UN diplomat-novelist who is already a posterboy for the capital’s chattering classes.

Their ‘crime’ isn’t that they were staying in a five-star hotel for the last three months: after all, there is no evidence of their having used public money for the luxury. Their failing, perhaps, is that their lifestyle was seen as a symbol of a certain social elitism, which a class-conscious Indian political system is still uncomfortable with.

A Mayawati, for example, can still get away with her grotesque exhibition of opulence (notice how she hasn’t said a word on the austerity debate) because she has been successfully projected as a ‘Dalit ki beti’, whose wealth makes her an aspirational symbol for an entire community. In politics, perceptions do matter.

In the Indian context, a neta must always project a common man’s touch, negated by the extravagance of living in the presidential suite of a five-star hotel. The ‘privacy’ argument simply doesn’t hold. Once you are in public life, your private realm is no longer clearly delineated.

One contemporary elite politician who has realised this better than most is Orissa Chief minister Naveen Patnaik. The Doon school-educated urban sophisticate who lived on plush Aurangzeb road, night clubbed in New York with Jackie Onassis and Gore Vidal, wrote books on herbs and gardens and relished his smoke and scotch, is now transformed into a tough and rooted regional satrap.

When in Delhi, he stays at Orissa Bhavan, hasn’t travelled abroad since becoming the chief minister, will happily entertain tribal dancers from his state and is always seen in public in a crumpled kurta-pajama. He may still drink the finest chota pegs in private, but in public he is what his followers want to see him as: an austere, committed mass leader.

Austerity, then, for a true Indian politician, is not so much about which class you fly by or which hotel you stay in: it is about consciously shedding a certain elitism that can, at times, be incongruous in a country where a majority of the people still struggle at subsistence level.

Post-script: Maybe, some of our ‘austere’ Indian netas need to follow the British example where in the past few months over a dozen MPs have been forced to resign for claiming all kinds of ‘allowances’, including mortgages of second homes, maintaining housekeepers, cleaning swimming pools, buying chandeliers and — in one case — putting up the family in a hotel. If that principle of accountability was followed, many of our MPs would have been forced out of office.

The views expressed by the author are personal.