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Monday, September 21, 2009

Ministers flying cattle class

The sudden hullabaloo over the so-called austerity drive launched recently by the Congress (and immediately imitated by lesser parties, like the CPIM organizing a khadi fashion show) first made me merely laugh sardonically – déjà vu absurdity, what else? Then I fell to reflecting, and it occurred to me that it was not a matter to be laughed at and ignored; there was food for thought here.

It is well-known that our politicians by and large like to live the high life; indeed, a great many people get into politics (have always done, at least ever since the British started letting in a trickle of Indians into government, way back in the 1890s) because they have decided it is the only way they can get a taste of the high life. It is not merely about dining at five-star watering holes and flying first class and staying at vast and grand bungalows at public expense, it is equally about being surrounded by armed guards and riding about in trademark white cars with sirens hooting and making swarms of secretaries and peons scurry about and keeping visitors waiting for ages just to tell the world how important one is, every waking moment. That is very much a characteristic of our political culture.

The interesting thing is that there has also been what I may call a counterculture, for want of a better word, of demanding that our rulers be self-effacing, simple in lifestyle, endowed with a philosophical bent of mind, dedicated to the ideal of service to the common weal, sage enough to know that to be honest in this world requires conquest of greed and brave enough to try conquering greed, regardless of the world’s opinion. That voice has never been completely drowned, and it grows strident every now and then – as now. This requires some understanding.

First thing to be noted: much of this strident criticism of the opulent living of our netas reeks of hypocrisy and double standards. Those who level such criticism – and those who focus and express it publicly, to wit journalists – are by and large middle class people who are themselves horribly greedy for the high life, and indulge in every kind of unethical dealing happily for its sake as long as they feel sure they can get away with it: I have been closely associated with the mass media myself, I have seen it all from the inside. I know how cheaply a reporter’s malleability can be bought – sometimes for as little as a suit length or an expensive saree or a bottle of good whisky or at best free tickets to Dubai or Singapore for self and the missus – and I despise them heartily when they write about politicians’ peccadilos, or sermonize about the importance of honesty and probity in public life. They deserve every bit of contempt I have heard politicians pouring on them. Their censure stems solely from impotent greed: they don’t hate the high life, they only hate the politicians who seem to be enjoying more of it than they can ever hope to. The fewer such people we have, the better for all of us. A straightforward crook is far more respectable than a pious fraud.

It is also a fact that our society (and that means not only the middle class, which has always been rather small till very recently, but the vast unwashed masses) has always expected the rulers to distinguish themselves from the ruled by grandiose and unabashed displays of pomp, pelf and power. Our folklore is replete with stories recounting, half-grudgingly, half-admiringly, the incredibly expensive and often unspeakably cruel ceremony and magnificence with which the sultans and badshahs, the maharajas and nawabs surrounded themselves. Single weddings, single monuments cost the taxpayer so much that great hordes had to be slaughtered to persuade other hordes to pay through their noses, and famine stalked the land afterwards and took off vast numbers again. It was not only accepted as part of the normal order of things, but even celebrated; after all, what were great sovereigns for, if they did not provide the masses with the spectacle and grandeur that they so craved, and could not hope to have in their own lives? Regardless of their avowed respect for their austere mentor Gandhi, both Jawaharlal Nehru and Md. Ali Jinnah carried this tradition of high-living into the palaces and courts of the new nations that were born under their stewardship in 1947 (Nehru was not dubbed 'The Last Moghul' for nothing!) Given that history, our current breed of rulers are doing nothing new or overly shameless and reprehensible; they don’t really need to apologise for anything.

Besides, the rulers of today – I wonder why they don’t have the guts to do it! – can very well point to the way the burgeoning middle and upper classes (by various estimates between 70 and 300 million strong) are living it up under the new dispensation, worshipping money and shopping and conspicuous consumption as the only things worth living for, all questions of ethics in making money be damned. Every other maidservant gets some jewellery made for herself whenever she can afford it, and tries to put her kids into an English-medium school; higher up the income ladder, every middle-class housewife splurges on puja shopping as though there will be no tomorrow, though her wardrobe may be bursting with luxury clothes already; look at how everyone spends on lavish weddings these days, and how nobody objects to the way the pujas themselves are becoming more ostentatious and expensive with every passing year, and fashion-show extravaganzas gain all-round approval, while money for poverty-alleviation programs is always scarce. And in case they dare to raise the inane objection that ‘it is our money we are spending’, they need only to be reminded that no money is their money by divine right: it is only a certain kind of social arrangement, a certain system of laws, that allows them to make and keep and spend that money the way they wish – and in allowing them to do so, politicians play a very decisive part (as in periodically hiking the salaries of government and PSU employees through one Pay Commission recommendation or the other, or in deciding how stiff taxes on businessmen should be). So why should the politicians themselves be left out of the party? Why on earth should the people expect them to be upright and moral and frugal guardians of a nation that is neither upright nor moral nor frugal when it comes to enjoying the material goodies of life?

Well, that brings us back to the insistent voice of the counterculture I mentioned earlier, the voice that is often almost drowned but never goes away, and that keeps making a lot of us feel guilty about our chosen lifestyles again and again. About that, in the next post…

5 comments:

Soumallya Chattopadhyay said...

Sir,
It is very rightly said that the Common people (specially the Middle class)just cannot think of anything other than to envy and bully at other's upliftment:be it social or economical or educational.
I am tired of hearing (especially in my surroundings) that all politicians are crooked and fraud and uneducated as a rule.it is also a common feature of people to criticize the government in a brazen manner;when any type of social breakdown takes place.
Like for example,after any public or social gatherings in an open place,it becomes full of litters and garbage.And seeing all these,people just put the blame on government and say:"Look....how efficient the ministry of health affair is".
From their conversation,it seems that common people will throw garbage here and there(other than the dustbins provided by the municipality)and it is the duty of government to clean the city.
My second example:You will notice (especially during the pujas)that this this the time when the number of accidents hikes to a great level.....People do not care about the rash driving,but only know how to bully the "Incapability" of the traffic police department.
Nowadays,people think that the only way to solve all problems is "PRIVATIZATION".I wonder sometimes,how much mindless creatures these people can be that they cannot even think of the service that Government hospitals render to the poor people,who cannot afford of seeking treatment at AMRI,or Apollo Gleneagles.They do not talk about the barbaric practice that some private hospitals undertake,but complain that Government Hospitals are for "Animals".
I agree that the service that the government provide in certain areas are poor;but at the same time,it has to be understood that all government employee are not crooked;neither are all the politicians double-standards or inhuman.But the common herds talk in such a manner that they will do whatever they like and will put the blame on the government and call them by names whenever they will be in problem.Isn't it?

Soumallya Chattopadhyay

Soumallya Chattopadhyay said...

Sir,
I have a question regarding this blog:
You have written :"I know how cheaply a reporter's malleability can be bought............for self and the missus"
My Question is:Who are the people,who buy the reporter's malleability,by bribing them?

Shilpi said...

I have been thinking over your recent posts (the comments and responses), some older posts and some very old ones. If I haven’t been commenting it’s partly out of guilt, helplessness, scepticism (I really see very little hope for society as a whole unless we have true leaders and/or public intellectuals who think, see very clearly and know what they are dealing with and what they are talking about - and find their places in the centre) can shift the direction in which the masses and the classes are moving), sadness, and some other less depressive thoughts. I should and would wait for your next post on the counterculture that you’re talking about – but here it goes for now.

There are some important connections amongst your previous post, ‘They live beyond the lights’, ‘Food for thought’, and this post... One connection being: how much do we need, what do we need, and how much is necessary to live the good live, and as a corollary – what is unnecessary.

This may seem disconnected but it isn’t really. I don't think we very often stop and think why we want what we want even in terms of material goodies. I don't even think that a majority of people stop to think whether they are really honest or good or ethical. I don't even think that they think over what being 'good' really means. And for sure, thinking is a very painful activity. The people who do engage in all of these painful and bothersome activities – do so regardless of which class they belong and to which social category they belong in terms of profession and otherwise.

As for politicians specifically – while there should be no reason for surprise that our politicians believe in living it up I still happen to believe that leaders should lead by way of example. That is what characterizes a great leader and since there are many who can imitate and would follow leaders – and some will follow inanely, blindly or slavishly for sure – it would have helped more than a bit if we could have had leaders of the ideal and the real kind. But yes, political institutions, education institutions, and in fact all social institution reflect the values of a society as a whole, it can hardly ever work the other way around.

This has become a humongous (but hopefully not a vague) comment. Will wait for your next post and write some shorter and more specific comments soon.
Take care.
Shilpi

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Soumallya:
Politicians and businessmen (and to some extent bureaucrats, and doctors and lawyers and policemen and actors who either have things to hide or are dying for some undeserved publicity, or want to hurt the reputations of people they hate) routinely bribe journalists either to 'kill' stories or to 'plant' fictitious ones or to grossly exaggerate the good things they have done. I have seen how easily reporters can be co-opted. Honourable exceptions there are, but lamentably few. Too often someone who seemed at first to be doing the honourable thing - taking risks or refusing bribes - later turned out to be doing it only because he was aiming at bigger things (much bigger bribes)!

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

Reminds me of the farce played out by the big three automaker CEOs in US recently.

They flew to DC, from obviously short, easily drive-able distances, in their private jets - to "beg for shares of federal (taxpayers) bailout money" - to save businesses they themselves screwed to collapse and bankruptcy (CEOs right?).

Not a single one among the three (top talents as they are often called) realized it looked WRONG!

Of course, there was an uproar, politicians admonishing, public outcry, yada, yada, yada...

Few people, who indulge in that activity not recommended at all these days called 'thinking' - kept scratching their heads and wondering why failed businesses have to be rescued with taxpayers money. Did you plan on investing in GM? Hell no. But the government just forced you to - too bad :(

The second part of the story is even more 'hilarious'-

Our three kids suddenly grow up - realize their 'mistakes', are humbler and totally aware of the situation now!

Next time around, they travel in environment friendly, 'green', hybrid cars to beg for money again.

They also agree to work for $1 a year!!

Politicians and public satisfied (or just playing along in this farce, knowing fully well what's going on) with the charade, agree to the doling out of the funds...

No one will ever question or find out how much of the funds went towards paying for the CEOs' perks, expenses and bonuses. Not to mention the obscene packages they have been receiving all the years they were 'leading' the business to total failure.

But hey, so humble, changed and working for only a dollar a year! You must be sick to suspect and question all these!

This one isn't about the politicians - but, they are ones handing out the taxpayers money. We all know how all this goes around.