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Austerity Drive: The Never Ending Debate

September 17, 2009

To be or not to be – that is the question. However, in India this does not end there. You see, there are a whole lot of questions that come up. Why, how, where, how much, to what effect, who else is doing it, will it mean a permanent way of life, in a country like India there will always be issues, why only the politicians – questions that need to be answered. The austerity drive initiated by Sonia and Rahul Gandhi has seen a spate of reactions and prime time debates on all channels. There were those who said that such austerity drive is just a show to camouflage the real issues that face the country – like price rise. There have been questions and more questions flying around like those kids on broom sticks in Harry Potter movies – an apparition, a figment of imagination that looks pretty convincing till you look closely and then you find that they are all dud, contrived and imagined. While the broom stick flying kids had the purpose of entertainment in those beautifully manufactured Harry Potter series, these questions are nothing but a manifestation of the utter frustration of the people’s representatives in being unable to do something about this wretched ‘austerity drive’ that has stung 10 Janpath.  The bad news for these Members of Parliament is that not only is Sonia Gandhi travelling Economy, her son took a train to Ludhiana recently. To make matters worse those that had resisted the austerity drive have also started flying Economy – people like Sharad Pawar and S.M. Krishna. One exalted gentleman, an MP, who was on the same flight as Her Highness but was ensconced in the front – in Business Class on getting to know that The Lady herself was on the plane in Economy Class persuaded the lucky gentleman whose seat was next to The Lady to shift to his seat in Business so that he could have a tee-a-tee with Her Highness. I am not sure how many monosyllables he could get out of Mrs. Gandhi but the blighter sure did get a taste of flying Economy. Some education!!

Those resisting their perks getting cut point out that such ‘austerity measures’ are but a show. A Show? Did they say a Show? Then the Show must go on!! They begin by criticizing this austerity drive but then when pestered go on to say that for them austerity is a way of life. They are damned if any perks are taken away from them but  when they find themselves cornered find solace in the assertion that they have been austere all their lives. People like Lalu Yadav took a dig at Rahul’s train travel in A/c Chair Car by pointing out that “Gandhi Baba (referring to Mahatma Gandhi) used to travel Janata Class (third class) and that all people’s representatives must also travel like Gandhi Baba’.  Prod them further and they start saying that the issues were price rise and unemployment while still not committing to following austerity measures. One TV channel kept on flashing Rs 435/- as the sum Rahul Gandhi had saved by travelling in a train. This was surely in bad taste. Why go on and on about something that should not be discussed at all but something that needs to be done. Go out and start living frugally rather than debating for weeks on end. In the meanwhile debates go on unfettered in all major TV channels and millions of inches of print space wasted in discussing the pros and cons of this austerity drive.

I have two issues though with this austerity drive that the government has initiated. One is the security concerns and the other is to make sure those billions lying in foreign banks come back home. If at all some of these bigwigs were to travel by train their itinerary must be a well guarded secret. Such tamasha in the name of austerity drive is counterproductive besides a security risk for these leaders and for the public that happens to be on the same train. The security must be foolproof and more security men may not necessarily mean a better security cover. I can understand Rahul Gandhi’s need to lead by example but this was at a security risk – for was not the train pelted with stones near Panipat on the way back?

The second is the need to get the trillions of dollars stashed away in foreign banks. No one seems to be concerned and now there has been a report suggesting that no such monies are known to be kept in foreign lands. This is hideous. We need to get back what is people’s money – ill gotten fortune that belongs to the poor and the disadvantaged of our country. Were we able to get back all those huge sums the country may not need an austerity-drive as it were. The government must take this up seriously and expeditiously.

Those who are debating the pros and cons of the austerity drive do not go any further. They are so engrossed in what they are expected to abdicate that they forget that there are follow up questions that need to be asked. For one, if we save money – what next. Where does this saving go? To the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, or has there been orchestrated some other organizations that will be given this money? And how can we ensure that this money reaches the poorest that need this most. There is this report that there are on an average six farmers committing suicide daily because of drought in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra. How can we help these unfortunate people? There must be a culmination of these efforts in some effective relief to these farmers who have had a bad year. There must be counters where people can donate and such donations must reach the underprivileged. Austerity is good, but it must result in something positive on the ground. We need to organize such relief efforts better so that what is saved by not only the people’s representatives but us all Indians is channelized such that it helps those who are in dire straits. The media would do well to highlight not just the austerity measures but also follow it up so that there is a clear understanding of where the money is going and to what effect. A lot of people would come forward to help were the government to organize such relief centers. It is not that Indians are totally apathetic but it is that they do not know where to give and whether such help will reach those it is meant for. It is unacceptable that there are Indians who are going hungry, selling their wives and committing suicide. This must stop and we must be organized better to be able to help our fellow countrymen. In the meanwhile following some austerity measures in these hard times is something that we all need to do. The leadership needs to show the way, and believe me people will follow. It is this land that has given Buddha, Mahavira and Gandhi.  Indians are sensitive people and would go miles were the leadership show some resolve. Sonia, Rahul and Manmohan have shown the way and made others follow. Three cheers to them!!! And let us stop all the debate and start living an austere life and giving.

PS: The irrepressible Shashi Tharoor commented on the Twitter that he would ‘definitely travel in cattle class out of solidarity with our holy cows’. The guy is incorrigible. And we lack a sense of humor. The Congress Party has taken umbrage at his public comment and has made their displeasure clear. Mr. Tharoor, silence is golden, and austerity divine, especially when it starts from the top!! Just keep in mind that you are a public servant now and not at the UN. Here people are looking for an opportunity to bring you down. Learn to shut up, for your own sake!!!

Update 18.09.2009: The Rajasthan Chief Minister has called for the resignation of Shashi Tharoor for his Twitter comment. The Congress Party spokesperson has also said that ‘appropriate action will be taken at appropriate time’. If one looks at the sequence of events, they seem to be orchestrated. Ashok Gehlot is not one to say anything without some basis to it. The problem is not the ‘cattle class’ part of the tweet but the latter part where Tharoor mentions ‘holy cows’. That has raised the hackles of the party (read Gandhi family) loyalists. If Tharoor is forced to resign (any respite for him can come only if there is an intervention from the very top) it will be sad as the man has hardly been able to function. He would have had to resign before he could get a real feel of the job he had been entrusted. The country lacks a sense of humor. This is not being ‘politically correct’ but totally devoid of an ability to laugh at ourselves. This first time MP getting a Cabinet post rankled many and this was a god send for them to start brandishing the knives which were in wraps till now.

Update 21.09.2009: Banks Duck RTI, write off Rs 15K crore: Times of India. It is reported that nationalized banks have written off more than Rs 15,000 crores outstanding from various borrowers between 2003-08. There was a Public Interest Litigation filed by one Richie Shoaib Sequeria from Borivili, Mumbai asking for the details in the Bombay High Court. The various banks have refused to furnish the names of the borrowers but have acknowledged that more than Rs 15,000 crores have been written off. This is a slap on the face of those who are talking about austerity measures. The fact is that huge sums are borrowed by various industrial houses and never repaid. This is again public money that is being embezelled with the connivance of the banks and the political class. Were our nationalized banks to fail, there will be the kind of recession that will be India centric and will be such a blow to the economic condition of the country that the nation will take decades to come out of. Nationalized banks are good only till they follow the banking principles in letter and spirit. Evidently, this is not the case and should be a cause for worry.

Update 10.10.2009: Congress MP’s were asked by the Congress Party to go and stay with the poor and the downtrodden in the villages of UP. A few of them chose to follow their leader. What they ended up doing was making a mockery of the whole exercise. It is being reported that these exalted personalities took with them generators and food and other paraphernalia. It was a crass effort at being one with the poor, the Dalits of UP. The Congress High Command was left fuming. They were fired for this ‘Dalit tourism’, as it were. They fail to understand the onus of this exercise. Rahul Gandhi does this to understand India and the problems of common Indians. Here were some smart politicians trying to make a political statement when what they were supposed to do was to be a part of their lives for a day or two. Rahul Gandhi clarified that he goes not just to Dalit houses but to the poorest of the poor and they could be Dalits or Brahmins or Rajputs. He went on to say that he does not believe in caste system. The media should have propped up this beautiful observation by the scion of the Congress first family. Instead they had a smirk on their faces as if Rahul Gandhi is a fool. The good news is that the young man is not stopping and the common Indian responds to his overtures. One would have expected the English press to applaud his efforts but what we found was absolute contempt for his efforts. As for me, my respect for Rahul Gandhi has increased manifolds. It will take the MP’s ages to understand what Rahul Gandhi is trying to do.

The other absolutely ghoulish behaviour is when the MP’s buy an economy class ticket and once the plane has takenoff insist that they be upgraded to business class. In effect, while they are officially still travelling economy they are enjoying business class. The problem for the cabin crew has become so endemic that they have reported this to the higher authorities in the aviation ministry. Can these people ever be able to understand the meaning of the term ‘austerity’?

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