The cattle twitter

Austerity And The Ruling Class

Thursday’s newspapers carried an interesting juxtaposition of the concerns of the rulers and the ruled in India today. While the minister of state for external affairs Shashi Tharoor bemoaned the fact that he was being forced to travel with the ‘cattle class’ as part of the austerity measures, an international report highlighted India’s “extraordinary” levels of malnutrition despite the high economic growth.

The document published by the Institute of Development Studies, UK, pointed out that failure in governance was the main reason why India still remains home to one-third of the world’s undernourished children. Stating that India will not be able to reach the Millennium Development Goals of reducing the number of people suffering from hunger by 50 per cent until 2043 as against the set goal of 2015, the report warned: “By failing to reach this target, the Indian government is condemning a further generation to brain damage, poorer education and early death that result from malnutrition.”

Freeloading habit
Being an erudite scholar who worked with the United Nations for over two decades, Tharoor must be aware of India’s shameful record in dealing with poverty and malnutrition. Now, when the Indian democracy has given him — completely out of the blue — an opportunity to do something to improve governance, he is more worried about being bracketed with the ‘cattle class.’

Let’s look at it from Tharoor’s view point. As one of the top executives in the UN earning a handsome salary (after leaving the UN, he must now be getting a fat pension), freeloading must have become part of his persona and after becoming a Union minister, he would have been convinced that he was born to enjoy life at state expense. But by being insensitive to the party’s line and showing his annoyance, Tharoor has really revealed his ‘bull class.’

All this austerity talk began after a newspaper report that Tharoor and his senior in the ministry, S M Krishna continued to stay in 5-star hotels even three months after being sworn in as ministers. Faced with criticism over extraordinary price rise, compounded by drought and floods in many parts of the country, the UPA government was under compulsion to demonstrate that it cared about people’s miseries. Hence, Krishna and Tharoor were ejected from their cozy cocoons, Congress ministers and MPs were asked to take a 20 per cent cut in salaries. Possibly at the behest of Sonia Gandhi, senior minister Pranab Mukherjee asked ministers and senior officials to travel economy class and avoid unnecessary foreign travel.

It might appear ‘cruel’ to ask someone as corpulent as Sharad Pawar to travel in an economically-built economy class chair when he with his wealth can afford a whole plane, but that is the whole point of austerity: You have to set an example for all the freeloaders down the line that it’s time to tighten the ‘cow belt.’ Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi too have joined the much-publicised economy bandwagon, but given their security concerns, it may be less expensive to let them travel ‘holy cow’ class.

Hopefully, it is only a beginning
and if the UPA government is really serious about cutting down wasteful expenditure, it should go beyond mere symbolism.

A completely bloated ministry and bureaucracy at the Centre are among the biggest drains on the exchequer and how about cutting their size, say by about 25 per cent? Why does Manmohan Singh need 78 ministers with all their paraphernalia when half of them don’t have any work? Will Sonia Gandhi summon enough courage to execute a ‘Kamaraj Plan’ asking all unwanted ministers to quit and order reduction of the size of bureaucracy within a set deadline?

Shastri’s moral stature
The campaign for austerity should become a national mission and we need political leaders who can set an example through their personal conduct and behaviour. A Lal Bahadur Shastri had the moral stature to command the entire nation to follow austere living, but in the present political scenario, is there any chance for people of such probity to even manage an entry into public life?

So, if the UPA government wants the people to believe in its sincerity to implement austerity, it should begin where it matters most: Tackling corruption at all levels in right earnest and reforming the electoral process.

The ministers travelling economy class may grab the headlines for a few days and save a few crores of rupees, but it won’t make a difference to the lives of the people or even the image of the UPA government. One can suggest a host of issues, but plugging the loopholes in government funding of projects, making sure that the various social welfare programmes reach the intended beneficiaries, reforming the public distribution system, awarding stringent punishment to corrupt officials, bringing back the ‘black money’ stashed away abroad, should be among the top of the agenda.

As everyone knows, the elections have become the fountainhead of all corrupt practices, and the austerity should begin by putting a firm lid on the expenses a candidate can incur during elections. It’s only then that Shashi Tharoors of our country will encounter the ‘cattle class’ not only on flights, but even on electoral battle fields!

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