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India's frugal moment: The ghost of Gandhi?

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

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.