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Resident experts

The simple truth is you have no right to the official car, house, security, etc, that go with an exalted office once you've lost it. The British understand this only too well. Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:24 IST
Karan Thapar

I don't know if you noticed, but Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee handed back the trappings of office with admirable alacrity. First, he resigned before the full count was over. Then, he dispensed with his official car and state security. I know of only one other example that speaks so highly of Indian political ethics.

In 1998, Inder Kumar Gujral became the first and only prime minister to immediately vacate the official residence. He left for Vajpayee's inauguration from 7 Race Course Road. When it was over, he headed home to Maharani Bagh. No one before him and none thereafter has followed this laudable precedent.

Perhaps in India we don't appreciate the importance of such propriety. The simple truth is you have no right to the official car, house, security, etc., that go with an exalted office once you've lost it. The British understand this only too well.

There is a well-established routine that's followed when British prime ministers lose elections. After the voting the results are usually clear by 2 am the next morning. Around noon the defeated prime minister drives to Buckingham Palace. He does so in the PM's official Jaguar. Upon handing back the seals of office he departs in a different car, a courtesy extended by the Palace garage.

Next, the Leader of the Opposition (LoP), now destined to be prime minister, leaves for the Palace. He travels in the LoP's official car. After his audience with The Queen, where he kisses her hand and receives the seals of office, he leaves in the PM's official car which, of course, was waiting for him.

But that's not all. Within seconds of the old PM leaving 10 Downing Street the removal vans take away his belongings. He has no right to continue at No 10. When the new PM leaves the Palace, he heads for Downing Street where, at the door of No 10, the staff lineup to receive him.

In India the defeated PM can continue in the official residence for weeks if not months. Why? Because he's waiting to be given a new home. And why should he be given one? No one asks and no one has bothered to explain. Every single one of our defeated PMs could afford their own house yet chose to 'accept' another from the State. Eventually, so too did IK Gujral.

Although our presidents vacate Rashtrapati Bhawan the day they retire, they also expect to be housed thereafter. In contrast, consider the story of Harry Truman. After attending Eisenhower's inaugural, Harry and Bess drove themselves home to Independence, Missouri. There was no Secret Service escort while the house that awaited them — and it was the only asset Truman had when he died — was inherited by Bess from her parents.

Again, that's not all. Truman retired on a US army pension of just $13,507.72. He paid for and licked his own stamps! When offered corporate positions with whacking great salaries he replied: "You don't know want me. You want the office of the president and that doesn't belong to me. It belongs to the American people and it's not for sale."

I'd say the difference lies in Truman's view of politics. "My choices in life were either to be a piano player in a whore house or a politician," he once said. "And to tell the truth, there's hardly any difference!"

Our lot believe they're made to be special. Their dreams — or hallucinations — are fulfilled at our cost. Oh well, Satyameva Jayate!

The views expressed by the author are personal.