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India's frugal moment: The ghost of Gandhi?

Analysis: A new government takes the cheap route. Can it last?

Villagers peer in the window of the new luxury train, Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, on the outskirts of the historic town of Jodhpur in the desert Indian state of Rajasthan, Jan. 14, 2009. In India, where the divide between rich and poor has always been stark, government officials are preaching a new mantra of frugality. In an effort to show solidarity with the poor masses, politicians have been asked to travel coach class and refrain from lavish banquets. (Vijay Mathur/Reuters)

BANGALORE, India — In India, frugality is in. At least that's the case with the country's luxury-loving politicians.

By going frugal, ministers and party bosses in the ruling Congress Party-led government are attempting a show of solidarity with India’s vast masses who are struggling to cope with drought, rising prices of staples and mounting unemployment.

The government was shamed recently when two of its ministers, Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and his deputy Shashi Tharoor, were busted for extended official stays in opulent hotels while their government-allotted residences were getting "readied" for occupation.

With the new frugality code coming into effect, the duo was ordered into more modest accommodation. The government asked all ministers to travel coach class and not throw lavish banquets in the guise of official meetings.

When Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi — one of the most powerful politicians in India — traded her private aircraft for a commercial flight to Mumbai to attend a party meeting, she was setting an example.

Her son Rahul Gandhi, general secretary of the Congress, promptly took the train from Delhi to Ludhiana, some 186 miles away. India’s finance minister flew coach class to Kolkata. Even the high-flying foreign minister Krishna abandoned the government jet to hop on to a commercial flight for his official trip to Central Asia.

Not since the days of the bare-chested, loincloth sporting icon Mahatma Gandhi has there been so much fuss over austerity.

Gandhi, branded a fakir (ascetic) for his simple living, walked everywhere leaning on his bamboo staff. His political descendants, both from the ruling Congress Party and its rivals, are having a hard time coping.

Shashi Tharoor, the former United Nations diplomat who returned to India to join politics, was decidedly un-diplomatic when faced with the cutbacks. The junior foreign minister tweeted that he would be “flying cattle class out of solidarity with the holy cows."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/india/090921/indias-frugal-moment