India's frugal moment: The ghost of Gandhi?

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."

The comment was immediately dismissed as insensitive by Tharoor’s own party. “In these troubled times, can the party that purports to represent India’s masses afford not to look austere?” responded its official spokesperson.

Many Indians are convinced that the exercise in cheapness is just a political whim.

“This show of conspicuous frugality is not fooling anybody, not even the aam admi (common man),” said Pranav Shukla, a Bangalore-based marketing professional.

The chasm between the political rulers and the long-suffering masses has widened over the years.

These days, Indian politicians routinely get themselves classified for the highest “Z+” security, which accords them bullet-proof cars, a convoy of escort vehicles and a posse of armed security men. Rather than a genuine security need, such accoutrements have become a politician’s status symbol.

Expensive foreign cars, spiffy gadgets and extravagantly furnished homes are common trappings. So the recent austerity measures are being seen as nothing more than populist symbolism. For every VVIP (very, very important person) traveling coach class, rows of airline seats are blocked as a security measure. The security cordon around VVIP train travelers is making the rest of the traveling public frustrated and angry.

Whether the ostensible frugality will have any impact on the country’s financial deficit or alter the long-term behavior of its freebie-loving political class is doubtful.

But the Congress Party, which won an unexpected victory in the general elections earlier this year on the back of schemes such as a rural unemployment program, is trying to strengthen its support among the poor and the rural masses. India’s phenomenal economic rise of recent years has bypassed a vast majority of its 1.2 billion citizens. An estimated 300 million lead a below-poverty existence, surviving on less than a dollar-a-day income.

Some experts see the divide between the rich and the poor, a common problem with newly-advancing countries such as India, China and Brazil, as a ticking time bomb waiting to explode in the faces of the ruling elite in these countries.

Given this scenario, austerity in public life may end up being a necessity. Yet, the fear is that this might end up as yet another passing fad for Indian politicians.