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A penchant for pelf and ostentation

September 09, 2009 15:03 IST

S M Krishna? Shashi Tharoor?

Throw your mind back, instead, to the more honourable of the political species, not during Mahatma Gandhi's time but quite in the recent past: 1975 and Gujarat.

It had the country's first chief minister of a non-Congress, non-Communist coalition government, Babubhai Jasbhai Patel. He first led the Jan Morcha government, then a Janata government. He was a believer in the trusteeship concept and tried to foster it. After his day's work at the office in Gandhinagar he had to go to another town to address a meeting, he walked to the long-distance bus stand and took an ordinary bus.

His overnight baggage consisted of the next day's change of clothes in a cloth bag which homemakers now demure if they have to carry to the shop to buy groceries. He made no fuss of his simplicity. Nor did he say that he needed a top-rated hotel to stay in befitting his status.

Such simplicity

Hark back to the 60s in Andhra Pradesh. You would have Vavilala Gopalakrishnaiah, a legislator who was equally simple. He was appalled when I once broached the subject of pensions for retired legislators. "Why that? For what? Is doing your duty a service that needs monetary compensation?" He was on par with Gulzarilal Nanda and Lal Bahadur Shashtri in simplicity. Both died poor. Gopalaksirhshnaiah did not even have his clothes pressed.

Scour the country and you would find this species but alas, not enough of them. But this tribe does exist to which values matter.

However, of course, there is a common thread between them and the Krishnas and Tharoors, and the humbler types like Babubhai Patels. They all lived or live befitting their style. The difference, of course, was not, as is now measured, according to their self-ascribed status.

Fetish of the lavish

The rich politicians make fetish of their lavish lifestyles, most of it, one suspects, funded by unpaid taxes, money secured by foul means or at the taxpayers cost. As far as the political class is concerned, it is often possibly the combination of all three, which is nauseating. Everything is ostentatious -- they would walk with their flunkies, have gunmen pushing the people around and exhibit what can be simply said to be arrogance. Others don't matter. Nor, their sensitivities.

The sensitivity of this class of citizenry is so blunted to public criticism that the duo of Krishna and Tharoor may not have vacated to relatively humbler accommodation had not the finance minister Pranabh Mukherjee drawn the line after the media exposed their long stay in luxury suites. Mind you, the various bhavans that each state government maintains, and to which they were asked to move, are not slums. They have a government flavour, but have all that is needed to live well.

Let me tell you about ministers who find the government bungalows unfit to live in till they are refurbished every time the occupant changes. They would even tell you that not all of the changes were paid for by the government. What they would never tell you is who paid for it. If he paid for it, why was he so generous to the government that is mindless in spending on its own?

Flaunt the pelf

Once in power, status and style matter and in this the politicians are not to be found wanting. Not at all, they like to flaunt it. When Maharashtra was going through its perennial power shortages and Mumbai too was to face some cuts, ministers were found wasting electricity and running bills worth lakhs of rupees. All of Delhi can suffer, but the people in the establishment in Delhi know how to protect themselves from any and all discomfort. These people are a cut above the rest, according to them. They like to wallow in pelf.

Reverting to Krishna and Tharoor, we should note that Krishna made two points. One -- a minister for external affairs needs certain things. Just what those are is not clear but perhaps superbly appointed residences. More likely as not, the one he is waiting to be done up before he moves in would be done to his taste. The question is -- how much is it costing the exchequer? Can't we have specified places for each minister specific to the portfolio? If you are finance minister, you stay in one specific bungalow. If you are leading the home ministry, then with the office, you shift your residence. These should have frozen designs lest the Lutyen's Delhi bungalows undergo changes which would scarcely be noticed from outside.

Spoilt by splendour

A chief minister who was later spoilt with the splendours of the Mumbai Raj Bhavan perhaps cannot be expected to become Spartan, perhaps.

The second point was that they were paying for -- according to media outputs -- from their personal accounts. Tharoor, as a long-serving diplomat with the United Nations, would be entitled to and getting a fat pension. With regard to Krishna, I suppose we are entitled to ask what his means of income are. How much of wealth does he have and how did he come to be? Transparency in public life demands such clarity. Like he came clean once -- that he was paying for the luxury suites from his pocket -- he should on the sources as well.

On an earlier occasion, I had pleaded that the Election Commission, which requires all candidates to declare their wealth, while filing nominations to the seats in the legislatures and the parliament, should ask for more. It makes sense to ask for not just declaration for quite a lot could be hidden but for audited accounts, especially since they moved into politics and then also specify their sources of income. This would help take another step towards transparency.

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based journalist and commentator

Mahesh Vijapurkar