Profligate legislators

Despite the moral edge that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) movement has given to politics, a 16-member team of legislators from the Congress-ruled Karnataka state were determined to tour a few South American countries at government expense. It is the intervention of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, a reinvigorated person after the drubbing the party received in Rajasthan and Delhi elections, that they finally buried the trip, which was a joy ride, with the tax payers’ money.

The most shocking aspect, however, is that the members going abroad were from the Estimates Committee of the legislature, entrusted with the task of saving superfluous expenditure. Representatives of both the Congress and the BJP constituted a team for the proposed tour. The BJP members developed sudden cold feet when some in the media criticised the junkets. The Congressmen caved in after Rahul Gandhi pointed out that the expense of Rs 16 crore was a waste when nearly 100 taluks of the state faced drought and when more than 200 farmers had committed suicide.

The members were technically justified because the state Assembly has laid down that the legislators could tour foreign countries twice in their five-year tenure. Probably, the same provision is offered to members in most other states as well. The Andhra Pradesh legislators are reportedly planning a trip abroad. Nearer home, the Akali Dal government sent the legislators to Scotland to see how the scotch whiskey was brewed.

All such trips are considered study tours. Since the reports following the tours are not published, it is anybody’s guess whether the legislators submit anything in writing at all. In fact, they are all paid holidays for pleasure, something which the government uses to placate its own members and those in the opposition. And this favour is not confined to legislators alone. Members of the committee of the Scheduled Caste and Minorities in Karnataka have just returned from a 16-day trip abroad. Their itinerary showed that they were visiting beaches, posh restaurants and pleasure resorts.

I found the same craze of going abroad among our parliamentarians. Since I was a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, I was never included in any such trip. Because of the media, an ethics committee was sought to be set up to stop extravagant expenses. The political parties normally distributed the ‘study tours’ among themselves. It is flabbergasting that the Language Committee members, including persons other than MPs, go to England and America every year to assess the spread of Hindi.

In fact, a ‘phoren’ trip is as much a craze in India as in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The legislators there also go abroad on one pretext or the other. Whether it is a hangover of the 150-year colonial rule of the British or part of thoughtless expenditure of the burgeoning middle class is difficult to say. Probably, both assumptions are correct. Yet, it cannot be denied that a free foreign tour is the best ‘bribe’ any government can offer.
Best of concessions

Countries in the West know this. Missions of the US and UK utilise this way to have the best of concessions. Top bureaucrats fall for ‘invitations’ from abroad. It would be revealing to find out how many children of secretaries to the government have gone abroad on scholarships or fully paid studies.

Foreign missions see to it that the children of highly-placed people are given pre-travel and full expenses on board and lodging in schools, colleges or other educational institutions. Unfortunately, even bureaucrats are falling prey to the generous hospitality of foreign missions. Since booze is free and flows like water, you can spot out top officials at parties of minor officials of foreign missions. This greed is nothing new. It has been there since a few years after independence.

India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was so shocked by the presence of secretaries to the government at parties of third secretaries in foreign missions that he issued a circular to instruct that the top officials should respond to invitations of only foreign officials of equivalent status. As days went by, the violations of the circular increased. Today it is free, for all. Invitations are sought even by MPs. Prime minister Manmohan Singh should issue a circular on the lines Nehru had done.

But I have lost hope after seeing the manner in which the Government of India has suffered humiliation at the hands of the State Department. Devyani Khorbragade was handcuffed and put in jail to share the cell with criminals. Secretary of State John Kerry has refused to tender an apology on the incident. It has now been found that she enjoyed the full diplomatic immunity when she was arrested.

I am not surprised by America’s arrogance of power. President Obama, who looked different initially, has become part of the establishment. He does not either evoke confidence or hope. He should have himself rung up prime minister Manmohan Singh to express remorse. The loss is that of America’s.

Washington may talk of strategic ties and New Delhi may reciprocate to be on the same page with the biggest power. But this relationship will stay at the official level only. People of India will remain distant. For them, the treatment meted out to Devyani has little to do with the diplomatic niceties. They consider it as an instance of the weight that Washington throws about. The persistence in prosecuting Devyani says it all.

I recall when I was serving as an employee of the USIS at Delhi I too did not get the wages the Americans were getting. This is probably understandable. But what I could not comprehend was the additional allowances that the Americans were getting while touring within the country as compared to the Indians, who accompanied them. I know this from my experience.

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