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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 9, February 14, 2009

Beyond the Drama


Monday 21 September 2009, by SC


While the BJP’s victories in the by-elections to the State Assemblies of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand have somewhat lifted the drooping spirits of the party faithfuls, the Trinamul-Congress combine’s electoral success in ousting the Left Front from the Siliguri Municipal Corporation in West Bengal has given a further blow to the CPM in particular thus reinforcing the idea of a ‘change’ in the State’s governance. However, these are of peripheral interest at the national level. What is of more relevance is the austrity drive by the Congress Government and the ruling party at the Centre heightened by the External Affairs Minister and the Minister of State’s stay in two major five-star hotels of the Capital on the plea that their residences in Lutyen’s Delhi were still not ready to be occupied. Shortly after the call for the austerity drive the Ministers had to leave their hotel suites (where they were not, however, staying at taxpayers’ expense) and take temporary accommodation elsewhere. In the meantime Congress President Sonia Gandhi flew economy class to emphasise the importance of the austerity measures while AICC General Secretary Rahul Gandhi travelled by Shatabdi to Ludhiana to convey the same message (although the latter’s travel was marred by some stone pelting shattering the train’s glass panes and causing security concern).

The touch of drama attached to such a move completely deflects attention from the basic point: in a country where 77 per cent of the population survives on just Rs 20.30 per capita (a shocking figure indeed) and the bulk of the people suffer from intense malnutrition and starvation, austerity must be practised by all those who are in public life without any display whatsoever because this is the moral dictum enjoined by the Father of the Nation in whose name the present-day rulers take their oath of serving the people in independent India.

Not only are there no qualms of conscience in this regard, the MoS for External Affairs, in response to a query if he would travel “cattle class” (read economy class), wryly exclaims on his internet website “Absolutely. In cattle class in solidarity with all our holy cows.” And a section of the media applauds him while describing the Congress’ “socialist ‘simplicity’” to be hypocritical. It may well be right; after all, while leaders are advising such ‘economy’ travel Ministers are using expensive foreign material with taxpayers’ money to ‘decorate’ their offices! Yet what cannot be missed is the deliberate attempt to ridicule the word ‘socialist’ in tune with the prevailing market-oriented philosophy where compassion for the poor and the downtrodden evokes derisive laughter because of its “prehistoric” value of little use in the present ‘globalised’ world. (It is good that the Congress leadership has repudiated the views of the concerned Minister; but then did it have any other option in the circumstances?)

The public display of austerity needs to be decried as it smacks of gimmickry. However, the underlying objective of the move must not be summarily dismissed as a farce. Even if it is a half-hearted exercise towards bridging the yawning gap between the rich and the poor it must be lauded and not rejected for its “‘anti-rich’ overtones”.

At the same time austerity is something which needs to be practised not as a one-shot affair but in perpetuity in Gandhi’s India especially now when societal disparities have assumed frightful proportions and are scaling newer heights.

September 17 S.C.

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