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The austerity bug

Things were absolutely fine a few months back. MPs could be seen wallowing in five-star swimming pools in the capital, rubbing shoulders with the glitterati in Mumbai and hobnobbing with corporate honchos in posh clubs, writes Manas Chakravarty.

india Updated: Sep 19, 2009 22:46 IST

Things were absolutely fine a few months back. MPs could be seen wallowing in five-star swimming pools in the capital, rubbing shoulders with the glitterati in Mumbai and hobnobbing with corporate honchos in posh clubs. Others flitted around the world in business class, enjoying their junkets. Politicians with criminal records lolled in the lap of luxury in top-class jail accommodation, occasionally signing large cheques to bump off hated rivals. All over the capital, one could hear the soothing sounds of scheming and plotting and back-stabbing. Add to that the familiar rustle of money being exchanged in shady deals and you have a picture of business as usual.

But that was before they got bitten by the austerity bug. It started off innocuously enough, with a few legislators giving up five-star accommodation for their sprawling bungalows. Others suddenly decided to travel economy class. And then Rahul Gandhi set the ball rolling downhill by travelling by train and that too in a chair car. The fever had set in well and truly. MPs outdid each other in suggesting new austerity measures.

Someone suggested they all take big salary cuts. Others pointed out that they only took a token salary of one rupee. Someone advised that should be reduced to fifty paise. An eager beaver recommended that the number of ministers should be halved, before he mysteriously disappeared from the face of the earth. A kill-joy MP proposed curtailing foreign jaunts. Another vociferously wanted a complete ban on travel, proposing video-conferencing instead. If travel was absolutely necessary, he said, legislators could go by bus and they could take cargo ships for attending foreign meetings.

A minister who wanted to flaunt his swadeshi credentials asked why couldn’t they use bullock carts instead. On being told that bullock carts don’t travel on water, he said the bullock cart too could go by cargo ship, so that on arrival at, say, New York for a meeting at the UN, the minister would immediately have it handy to take him to the UN headquarters.

Things then started to deteriorate rapidly. A dyspeptic parliamentarian said they should eat only rice and daal. Eating and staying in hotels had by then been banned and MPs had to make do with dharamshalas. The debate moved on to housing, with an austere MP demanding they vacate their bungalows and shift to flats instead. A leader of the extremist austere faction asked sarcastically why shouldn’t they, as servants of the people, stay with the masses in the slums.

A lawmaker who had bought an economics degree pointed out that the government’s fiscal deficit would be wiped out if all the government bungalows were auctioned off. Some people started to question the need for MPs to wear suits. Others questioned their need to shave. And so the bedlam continued.

One fine day, as NSG commandos and Black Cats manned the perimeter of a large field in the capital, people drifted in slowly, some in bullock carts, others on foot. The men were unshaven and wearing loincloths, the women unkempt and wearing nighties. All were barefoot. Seeking shelter from the blazing noonday sun, they gathered under a large banyan tree, sitting on charpoys placed there for the occasion. Some preferred to sit on their haunches. The more extreme faction wore hair shirts and carried whips to mortify their flesh, while some of them sat patiently on their own beds of nails. The next session of the Indian Parliament had begun.

Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint