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Why austerity is a joke in Indian politics

Soutik Biswas | 16:28 UK time, Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Shashi TharoorIndia's Grand Old Party, the Congress, has asked two of its ministers to abandon a life in luxury. This happened after news washed up that foreign minister SM Krishna and his deputy Shashi Tharoor were living in two upscale hotels in Delhi because their official bungalows were not yet ready for them to move in. Both ministers say they are paying for the pricey hotel rooms from their own pockets.

But apparently embarrassed by the report, the party high command has ordered the two men to leave the hotels and move into more modest dwellings because their lifestyle "flew in the face of party's emphasis on austerity in public life." One of the two luxury loving ministers, Shashi Tharoor, is bristling with anger. "I would be ashamed if I was spending the people's money. But I'm not - I'm spending my own savings," he Twittered. Mr Tharoor, a former aide to ex-UN chief Kofi Annan, said he "needed a gym and some privacy" and the hotel gave him both.

But the newspaper that broke the story explained that it had a case against the two ministers staying temporarily in a luxury hotel even if they were paying. It wrote: "That two high-profile UPA ministers, one of cabinet rank, have been staying at five-star hotels for more than three months is not, this newspaper will maintain, a case for moral or legal rebuke. Anybody with the requisite means is within his rights to stay at a five-star hotel or build a palace unto himself. But External Affairs Minister SM Krishna at the ITC Maurya and his Minister of State Shashi Tharoor at the Taj sit against the stark backdrop of Congress exhortations on "austerity" and "sacrifice". Congress MPs are being asked to part with a fifth of their salary for drought relief (itself a meagre amount, but that's another matter) as their colleagues in the Ministry of External Affairs are running up, presumably, bills that beggar those salaries manifold. Perhaps it's pertinent to ask who should be more embarrassed - the two ministers or the party itself?"

The problem with this argument is that we are taking Congress - or any party in India - exhortations to maintain austerity seriously. Indian politicians love to preach what they don't practice. The Congress - and most national parties - have a long history of pleading its members to practice austerity, but citizens have never seen any evidence of that in real life.

So the more things change, the more they remain the same. What about the long, expensive cavalcades carrying ministers and the red and blue beacon bearing cars carrying their minions with party flags painted illegally on their number plates muscling in and out of traffic? What about the glittering political receptions? What about the wasteful adverts with pictures of ministers and lawmakers announcing the opening of a railway station or a city flyover? What about the politicians with a bevy of hangers-on travelling business class? Why then the austere righteousness over two ministers who are paying for their own accommodation in posh hotels?Shanties in front of a palace in India

The bit about Congress MPs being asked to part with a fifth of their salary is a bit of a joke anyway. "There are two ways of making politics one's vocation," sociologist Max Weber once said. "Either one lives for politics or one lives off it". In India, politicians live off politics for the most part. Apparently, the Congress party is distressed with the "extravagant lifestyle of its ministers". Do Indians even take such sanctimonious piffle seriously in a patronage-driven democracy ravaged by brazen political corruption?

Nobility cloaked in hypocrisy is the bane of Indian society. Blame should not be placed at the politicians' door alone. In a depressingly hierarchical society where the past casts a long shadow over the present, ostentation is encouraged, accepted and practised with a vengeance by the rich and the middle class alike.

People vie with each other to host flashy and vulgar weddings and functions as beggars fight for their pickings outside, reminiscent of Ryszard Kapuscinski's description of a reception that the Ethopian emperor Haile Selassie threw for visiting leaders that he attended. A sumptuous feast was on inside the venue. Outside, Kapuscinski writes, "in the thick of the night, a crowd of barefoot beggars stood huddled together. The dishwashers working in the building threw leftovers at them. I watched the crowd devour the scraps, bones and fish heads with laborious concentration." In rich and middle class India, scenes like these are tiresomely routine. Those who practice ostentation often condemn it the most. Doublespeak and hypocrisy is a national affliction; and talk is cheap. And people get the politicians they deserve.

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