Every time anybody talks about politicians and austerity, I’m always reminded of Sarojini Naidu’s famous remark about how much it cost to keep Mahatma Gandhi in poverty. Naidu meant that if the Mahatma intended to travel by third class in a train, then a whole bogey had to be cleared so that he could be secure. The symbolism of third-class travel was powerful and effective but the cost was rather more stupendous than the Congress was willing to let on.
So, certain things need to be said right away. Many politicians need to travel quickly and safely. We could send the Prime Minister to the Gulf by Air India Express at a cost of a few thousand rupees. But when you add up the cost of the tickets for the officials accompanying him, not to mention the security team, the PM’s own air ticket will only be a fraction of the real cost incurred by the State.
Nor do I think that it is worth putting ministers through needless hardship. When Pranab Mukherjee was foreign minister, I was sometimes on the same flight as him and I marveled at his ability to work so hard and travel so much at his age. I did not grudge him his First Class sleeper seat. I recognised that I would rather have a foreign minister who was ready and rested going into a negotiation on India’s behalf, than some poor bedraggled soul who had not been able to get any sleep on his overnight flight.
Likewise, I admire S.M. Krishna’s willingness to fly in economy class for 15 hours on his way to Belarus. But I also think it’s a little silly. The man is over 70. He needs a degree of comfort.
I’m less sympathetic to ministers who tell us that they need to stay in five-star hotels rather than state Bhavans because they need privacy and a gym. If you want five-star privacy, then don’t join politics. And what’s all this about a gym? When they do get their official houses, will they insist that they are equipped with functioning gymnasiums? Why can’t they be like the rest of us and go off and enroll in a nearby gym?
The truth is that despite the sometimes overly sanctimonious nature of the austerity drive, there is a need to remind politicians that much of this country is desperately poor. At a time of drought when the government is talking about cutting costs there is something to be said for setting an example.
I am not one of those who believe that Indian politicians should always travel economy and drown their whisky in Coke so that they can claim that they do not touch alcohol. But equally, I am revolted by the lavishness and ostentation that has now become the hallmark of much of the political class.
If it was up to me, here’s what I would ban:
* Lavish weddings: According to me, all big, showy weddings are a waste of resources and vulgar beyond belief. When politicians host such weddings, however, the ostentation seems doubly offensive. If I was Congress President, I would expel any member of the party who organised such a wedding. If you want to throw your money around, either don’t join politics or join the Samajwadi Party.
* Motorcades: Nothing symbolises the contempt that educated Indians have for the political class better than the motorcade of white Ambassadors with red lights on top of them. All the best ministers — P. Chidambaram, Madhavrao Scindia, etc. — have always shunned such motorcades. Scindia would frequently drive his own car and Chidambaram still shuns the trappings of office and drives himself in the evening. Why can’t others follow their example?
The worst offenders are state chief ministers. If I was Prime Minister, I would ban state ministers from bringing their motorcades to Delhi. And I would penalise any state whose chief minister travelled in this obscene manner.
* Security: It is a general rule of thumb in India that the bigger the entourage of Black Cats, the more worthless the punk who they are escorting. Those under threat — Sonia Gandhi, for example, or Chidambaram — use unobtrusive security. It is the nonentities who want squadrons of commandos to accompany them everywhere and to sit in hotel lobbies, machine-guns at the ready, while their protectees eat their garlic prawns and chicken Manchurian.
If this government believes in austerity, then it would withdraw the security of at least 50 per cent of all protectees.
* The ministerial bungalows: If you were to charge true market rent for a ministerial bungalow in Lutyens’s Delhi, then Rs 10 lakh a month would be a reasonable figure. It is bad enough that ministers get to occupy such lavish homes. What is worse is that many then destroy the original architecture by customising them and building extravagant additions.
Don’t you find it odd that so many ministers claim that their official bungalows are still being renovated? These bungalows were fine when the last lot of ministers lived in them. How many changes and improvements do these new guys want? And it’s all at taxpayers’ cost.
* I do not believe that every politician should pose as a Gandhian or live an ascetic life. Nor do I think that we should lose ourselves in empty gestures and needlessly symbolic downgrades. Good people need to join politics and they will not do so if they are required to accept lives of deprivation. But there is a vast middle ground between a Gandhian lifestyle and a ministerial lifestyle.
So, here’s my proposition: when this phase of drought-prompted austerity ends, let’s dispense with the symbolism and do some serious cutting back. The changes we need go beyond symbolism. They touch the very core of the relationship between the people and the rulers.
Politicians are not meant to be moguls. They are supposed to be the servants of the people. So, let’s strip them of their motorcades, their Black Cats and their customised mansions. Let’s penalise them when they host lavish weddings and ostentatious birthday parties.
It’s time to remind them that we, the people of India, put them in office. And we are fed up of their delusions of grandeur and their naked flaunting of their ill-gotten wealth.
Austerity may only be a phase. But an end to ostentation and extravagance must be the guiding principle of Indian politics.