Need leaders who can sacrifice
Luxurious over-indulgence of Indian politicians and their kingly attitudes give us a clear impression of the decaying and disfunctioning condition of the country’s ruling class devoid of all groundedness, having long forgotten the duty called ‘public service’
Recall the adage; the more the things change, the more they remain the same. Notwithstanding the high decibel frequent avowals of our netas committed to the idea of an inclusive and egalitarian India, they remain obsessed with the urge to eke out the maximum for themselves. They chant, “all men are equal”, but they are more equal than the others. Again, although the current Government claims to be just and strong to safeguard the essential values and mores of good governance, much to the chagrin of aam aadmi, it has caved in to unabashed dadagiri of its recalcitrant ally.
Will the Government, at the highest levels, be ignorant of immense demoralisation caused, not only to airlines industry, particularly the ailing Air India, but across the country’s bureaucracy, when, there was a countrywide popular upsurge for serious, deterrent penal action against the boorish, remorseless MP shamefully bragging how obnoxiously and unjustifiably he humiliated an Air India manager? Didn’t the contrived justification cited by Minister of State for Civil Aviation, that the MP at fault tendered an apology for his reprehensible conduct look ludicrous in the face of the culprit and his cohorts in the party openly maintaining that the question of an apology by him didn’t arise?
President Pranab Mukherjee hailed our Parliament as a temple of democracy. Do our MPs ever ponder, why the President’s allusion led to widespread public derision? Wasn’t the very basic sanctity of the institution allowed to be impaired and sullied when the entire band of an NDA Government ally, including a cabinet minister from their ranks, menacingly surrounded the Civil Aviation minister and laid siege within the hallowed precincts of the Lok Sabha?
Imagine the despicable ruckus created by an ‘Honourable’ Member of Parliament only because he had to travel in the economy class on a short air flight from Pune to Delhi. The MP, like others of the ilk, represents the people in the country where over 99 per cent of the general masses do not ever have an opportunity to travel by air in any class. Here we have a typical ‘public servant’ groaning with discomfort of a little less wide a seat on the aircraft, also unable to fully sprawl himself for a snooze during the two-hour flight.
Whether it is the overwhelming urge of a lal batti on the vehicle, or the licence to jump the queue in general, to eke out a special treatment anywhere everywhere, the malignant VIP virus grows unabated. From the time of independence, the life styles of people in power or position have changed dramatically. Pre-1947, we had the pomp and circumstance of the British Raj (excusable in a sense as they had an empire to rule and a corresponding message to send down to the ruled) and the grandiose panoply of the Maharajas and Nawabs (understandable but not excusable).
The lure of an easy and extravagant life style with an urge to grab loaves and fishes of office has captivated all sections of political leadership — across the Vidhayaks and councillors of all denominations. As the virus has rampaged, it has sucked in its vortex bureaucrats and all others in public life. Today, frugality, thrift and husbandry are considered old-fashioned fads. Basic governance itself has been hit hard.
Few comprehend how Mahatma Gandhi derived his moral power, awe and respect from an exemplary austere life-style. As Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore explained, “Gandhiji sat at the thresholds of the huts of the thousands of dispossessed, dressed like one of their own. He spoke to them in their own language.” He held in his bony fingers the fate of world’s mightiest empire, where the sun never set. He travelled across the country by trains in the lowest class because, as a leader revered as a ‘Mahatma’, he knew the virtue to really identify himself with the masses. An austere life-style is essential and relevant not merely to demonstrate an abiding identity with the aam aadmi but as a lasting virtue in public life and governance.
What is austerity? Let us discuss what austerity is not. It is not having your car fitted with flashing light and wailing siren. It is not jumping queues, nor whisking the privileged away from the essential security drill at airport. It is not audacious adulations so often splashed in newspaper advertisements at the expense of the public.
It is not Ministers and leaders collecting a vast retinue of hangers-on and a battery of officials in tow, spending public money on travel, entertainment, extravagance in renovation of offices and bungalows. It is not Rajyapals’ urge to add newer models to their fleet of cars. Austerity is not parliamentary committees vying with each other for jaunts and junkets to salubrious climes within the country or, still better, far-off overseas locales.
It is not judicial commissions, inquiry committees or retired bureaucrats remaining ensconced in sinecures for years. It is no austerity that a self-proclaimed Dalit messiah gets narcissistic, vainly erecting monuments, spending thousands of crore. Such acts potentially cause revulsion; nemesis comes about, sooner or later.
On the other hand, austerity is also not stark puritanism or parsimony. It requires no self-flagellation of hermits or the silence of monks. Austerity is certainly no sanctimonious hypocrisy. Austerity in public life is merely the practice of restraint by people whose actions are in public domain, who must view public funds and property as public trust, whose every move is watched, perhaps emulated, and who set an example from above. You may have a large private income or inherited wealth but its ostentatious display or a sign of conspicuous consumption just does not become you, if you are a representative of the people or a public servant.
Let us not delude ourselves: The country has for long been enwrapped in a crisis of dysfunctional governance and politics, often teetering on the edge of a valley of despair, waiting to slide farther off the precipic. Confronted with ballooning wage bills and myriad public expenses, not to talk of burgeoning populist propensity towards distributing largesses, Union and State Governments need to come out with healthy therapies, some neat ways out of rampant fiscal profligacy. The Modi Government has been raising people’s expectations of achchhe din in a swachch, new India. It has a long, arduous journey ahead to make it happen.
Government is expected to govern, more resolutely so, in adverse circumstances when the going is not good. Nothing of substance is ever achieved unless people in position are prepared to rise above the circumstance.
As former US President Brack Obama said, every day, families sacrifice to live within their means; they deserve a Government that does the same.
(The writer is senior fellow, Asian Institute of Transport Development and commentator on social issues)
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