They're quite at home
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They're quite at home

If presidents, vice-presidents and PMs have such entitlements why not extend them to speakers as well? Karan Thapar writes.

columns Updated: May 05, 2012 22:23 IST

'Do you remember that clever sentence from Animal Farm?' It was typical of Pertie to start a conversation with a challenge. But this time he didn't wait for me to respond. "All animals are equal but some are more equal than others. Doesn't that remind you of our politicians?"

"Good heavens," I burst out, unable to suppress a laugh. "Are you being serious?"

"Well, look at what our former speakers are demanding and then tell me if they don't think they're more equal than the rest of us." Pertie was referring to Purno Sangma's proposal, allegedly accepted in principle by the government, that former Lok Sabha speakers be entitled to rent-free accommodation, transport, staff and office expenses for life. "What do you make of it?"

"If presidents, vice-presidents and prime ministers have such entitlements - and they don't amount to a King's ransom - why not extend them to speakers as well? Why leave them out?"

Pertie snorted. His disgust was obvious. "The point is not to extend it to every greedy claimant but to stop this unjustified doling out of perks and privileges altogether."

"Oh come," I said, but only gently. Pertie was already sufficiently aroused. "Presidents, vice-presidents and PMs deserve a little special treatment. They're not the same as the rest of us."

The look on Pertie's face suggested he was metaphorically rolling up his sleeves. What followed was certainly a series of knock-out verbal punches.

"Can you name even one self-respecting republic where retired leaders are housed free for life and their widows after them? They're expected to live off their income not off the tax-payer. In Britain, prime ministers are moved out of Downing Street within hours of losing the election. They don't get to spend even one extra night. And, thereafter, they're on their own, whether they have a house or not."

"What happens if they don't have a house befitting of an ex-president or prime minister? Isn't that sufficient grounds for giving them a place? Doesn't the dignity of the office they once held require this?"

"What arrogance and pomposity!" By now Pertie's nostrils were flaring. He bore an uncanny resemblance to the Merrill Lynch bull. I sensed it was time for me to retreat. "You don't become better or more deserving just because you once held high office. Presidents and prime ministers are not royalty and the rest of us aren't their subjects. And proof of my point is the Truman story."

In a nutshell, here it is: After attending Dwight D Eisenhower's inauguration, Harry and Bess Truman drove themselves home to Independence, Missouri. There was no Secret Service escort while the house that awaited them was a small two-bedroom property Bess had inherited from her parents. It was the only asset Truman had when he died. Yet he is remembered as one of America's great presidents.

But Pertie's killer blow was yet to come. "Have our politicians forgotten we're a poor country? Thirty per cent of Indians are officially said to be below the poverty line although we all know the reality is far greater. Thirty three per cent don't have electricity. Fifty three per cent don't have toilets and have to shit in the open. Sixty per cent don't have clean drinking water. Yet our politicians want free accommodation for life! And it can only happen at the cost of the poor who often don't have a home at all."

Oddly enough, Pertie didn't point out which animal considers itself more equal than others. I marvel at his discretion.

Views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: May 05, 2012 22:20 IST