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Soft-pedalling austerity

india Updated: Oct 08, 2009 21:35 IST
Suhel Seth
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Mayors of cities are often among the most boring people you can meet. But London, last week, was surprisingly refreshing.

Rushing to meet a group of us was Boris Johnson, who struggled through London’s evening rush-hour traffic despite the flashing red light, which was on the back of his helmet and not atop any government car. So no one cared who this cyclist was.

Yes, Boris Johnson, the present Mayor of London goes to work on a bicycle and wears the statutory helmet with a red light, meant to warn other vehicles and not to assert authority. He is an accomplished intellectual, former Editor of The Spectator and one of the most prominent Tories in England. So it wasn’t surprising to see people queuing up to take his autograph or to get clicked with him. There were no security guards around Johnson. This is the heart of the matter.

Back in India, I laud what Sonia Gandhi has done as far as austerity is concerned. But austerity cannot be imposed. It must come from within, like it did for Mahatma Gandhi, Pandit Nehru and B.C. Roy. The problem with India is that austerity is often seen as de-linked from the supremacy of the office that people hold. The red-light syndrome is symptomatic of a lack of confidence that our politicians suffer from. I don’t mind security covers for those who are on terrorists’ hit-lists. But for some of our MPs and bureaucrats to brazenly abuse the power they have is unforgivable. And it will be more than an austerity drive that will change it.

The movement that has begun with the active participation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi cannot be allowed to transcend into tokenism if the attitude itself doesn’t change. The attitude has a lot to do with the fact that the office you hold is defined neither by security cover nor the cavalcade of cars, which accompany politicians all the time. In that respect another role model is P. Chidambaram. The fact that India’s home minister is leading by example should be enough of a practice for most to follow.

Boris Johnson has gone one step further. He has advised David Cameron (tipped to be Britain’s next prime minister) that all cabinet ministers of a Tory government shouldn’t have official cars. Instead, there should be a carpool from which they can requisition one when they need it, and for official purposes. This will set an example and also conserve energy: both of which India desperately needs.

So may I suggest Mrs Gandhi that your next call should be to eliminate the concept of red-lights and white Ambassadors. Instead, create a car pool. For the younger lot in the Cabinet, prod them into riding a bicycle to work. This may force India’s political parties to choose people who are young enough to ride a bicycle, if nothing else.

Suhel Seth is the CEO of Counselage, a Delhi-based brand and marketing consultancy

The views expressed by the author are personal