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Stop wealth morality from becoming a political epidemic

When Rahul Gandhi walks through villages, sleeps on hard cots, eats what his poor hosts eat, the opposition parties reduce the phenomenon to something of a farce. We, the urban educated suspect his motives, writes Gautam Chikermane.

india Updated: Oct 11, 2009 20:51 IST

When Rahul Gandhi walks through villages, sleeps on hard cots, eats what his poor hosts eat, the opposition parties reduce the phenomenon to something of a farce. We, the urban educated suspect his motives.

Villagers, if news reports are to be believed, relish his presence. I stand bewildered. Not because of what Rahul has done, but at our foolishly cynical response that somehow wants to believe that something is amiss, a fantasy.

When Shashi Tharaoor said he stayed in a 5-star hotel by paying the bills with his own money, we are outraged. Tharoor tried to play it down, the opposition tried to play it up and his own poverty-parading party, some of whose leaders refuse to leave the 5-star, 5-acre accommodation in the centre of New Delhi that they illegally occupy, castigates him. I stand bewildered again. Not because of what Tharoor has spent, but at the way wealth is first displayed and then smothered.

Somewhere, I suppose, among the rich and powerful, wealth is no longer about the number of zeros behind a number. If the country’s biggest corporate battle between Mukesh (at $19.5 billion or Rs 95,000 crore, the world’s seventh wealthiest man, according to Forbes) and Anil Ambani ($10.1 billion or Rs 50,000 crore, ranking 34 on the Forbes rich list) is any indication, no amount of wealth is enough.

And, with the background of a financial crisis, job losses, drought and farmer woes, the new politics — driven by the large number of suffering masses — has acquired a new stench: poverty. Condemning the in-your-face ostentatious consumption seen in multi-crore marriages, pretty necks bent with the weight of glittering chains or its card-carrying symbols of a Hummer, a $2 billion (Rs 9,800 crore) castle or a Rs 200-crore yacht is all very well — envying the haves has been the way of the have-nots for millenniums. But taking it down to political expectations is not merely suspect or illiterate but counterproductive.

It is suspect because for most worthies in “public life”, apart from power it is “wealth creation” that’s top-most on their minds. When, as a society, we are unable to support the poor with a minimum amount of dignity (a house, sanitation, three meals and healthcare) that would allow them to express themselves freely, it is money that people will worship and chase.

Money, in that paradigm, is not only a tool to get by but the sole metre around which anyone and anything is measured. By keeping power and the associated perks that taxpayers pay for with themselves and ensuring their private purses are taken care of — how many poor politicians do you know? — public life has become one of the means to building private wealth.

It is illiterate because condemning wealth and all that comes with it — including ostentatious consumption — treads on the right to be wealthy, the right to live a good life in any manner as people choose to define it as long as it is not illegal. By attempting to set the lifestyle benchmark around a lower denominator, while being noble-sounding, is silly because it fails to see that if a huge mass of India embraces poverty as a moral high-ground (they are already on the real low-ground), the result ahead is a glamorised deprivation.

It is counterproductive because if on the one hand all political parties want India to grow faster than it is — and rid itself of poverty — chasing and strengthening a culture of penury should be the last thing on their minds. Instead, the new politics needs to focus on demonstrable success stories of individuals fighting their way out of that morass and creating wealth. The focus of the new politics should be on wealth creation, not wealth redistribution — that happens in any case through innovative employment, education and healthcare schemes that the UPA government has introduced.

By no means am I propagating the crude display of extreme wealth.

Identifying with the poor, the strongest and most widespread political constituency that transcends caste, religion,
language and culture is in fact something all aspiring politicians — or policymakers, journalists and if I might stretch the thought, even corporate executives — must undergo as a training ground to understand, relate to and identify with the bottom of India’s 1.1 billion strong pyramid.

But instead of walking down the pyramid, we need to create ladders for the poor to climb up. For that to happen, some of the assumptions that we as a society harbour — wealth is immoral, for instance — need to be questioned. Wealth morality should not become the new dengue, a new political epidemic. We need to draw a balance where Tharoor should be free to check in at Maurya and Rahul shouldn’t be seen with contempt or suspicion if he stays in a hut.