Democracy, austerity, and falling to the trappings of power

Arvind Kejriwal, the recently-elected Chief Minister of Delhi, declined to move into the official residence and refused police security. His moves have turned the focus on austerity in officialdom and the norms of democratic governance.

Of course, Kejriwal subsequently flip-flopped the residence issue. The developments provide an opportunity to discuss norms of governance and accountability in the use of
public resources by the ruling classes.

To be clear, India has a long tradition of pomp and show by the rich and powerful. Going back to ancient history, the Mahabharata has references to the palace Duryodhana built to impress his rivals, the Pandavas. More recently during Mughal rule, grand architecture including the renowned Taj Mahal were built in India. The entry of the British in the 19th century enhanced the trend, as the new rulers brought their regal traditions into the country. Colonial buildings with remarkable sprawl and elegance still dot the country. In India, the grandeur of the ruling classes has co-existed with the squalour and poverty of most of the population – a striking contrast that attracts international attention.

Into this milieu walked Mahatma Gandhi. Inspired by Jesus’ teachings that emphasise consideration for the poor, Gandhi was struck by the contrast between the haves and the have-nots, in particular the officialdom. He consciously adopted a frugal lifestyle and advocated this as the way of public life, in particular for a country like India with its vast numbers of poor. Gandhi inspired several of his generation. Participating in the Satyagraha movement, a large number of Gandhi’s followers gave up personal comfort and a life of ease for austerity. Gandhi elevated the nationalist movement to a moral plane and stressed personal sacrifices as an important element in the struggle. The practice resonated with Yogic notions that comfort corrupts the spirit, and temperance is the path to attain purity and strength of character.

In any case, Gandhi’s influence was short-lived. Post-independence, India witnessed societies reverting to their mean. Less than six months after colonial rule ended, Gandhi was assassinated and the new rulers of India, who professed allegiance to Gandhi and his ideals, lost little time in taking over the colonial establishment left behind by the British. Gandhi’s prescriptions about simplicity and purity in public life fell by the wayside.

Among Mahatma’s recommendations on austerity in public life was converting the vice-regal palace in New Delhi into a museum. But it was renamed Rashtrapati Bhavan and became the residence of the President of India. In Gandhian thought, there was little place for the titular head of a poor country, which India obviously was, to live in an outsized residence built by former colonial rulers who were, to a considerable extent, responsible for the country’s poverty.

Lavish lifestyle

Jawaharlal Nehru, free India’s first prime minister, moved into the second-largest residence in New Delhi – that of the colonial Commander-in-Chief. With this as perhaps the lead, the new ruling class swiftly took hold of the other ‘goodies’ left behind by the British. As a result, the officialdom continued in free India with pomp and show as before. To make matters worse, a trend emerged among politicians who were given large official quarters to hang on to the properties even when they no longer held their positions. This led to litigation in the Supreme Court with unclear results. It is an open question how many public residences in New Delhi are still being squatted on by the powers-that-be.

It is refreshing, and befitting, that the Aam Aadmi or the Common Man Party has turned the focus on officialdom and its lifestyle. The regal style of the ruling classes harks back to times of monarchy and colonial rule. They are quite inappropriate in a democratic setting. Lavishness in public life contradicts democratic norms of accountability and responsible governance in a country that has more poverty than freedom from want.

The ruling establishment applying a large part of public revenues to funding its lifestyle is seriously opposed to the democratic ideal. From this perspective, the recent developments are encouraging and, hopefully, they will lead to some progress in the future. In early 2000s Yashwant Sinha, then finance minister in the BJP-led government, referred to the fact that a sizable portion of government revenue went towards funding establishment expenses, including the salaries of government employees. He raised a question about the real purpose of government – to make life better for the country or for the officialdom. Sadly few other public figures appear to have spoken on this important issue.

Jairam Ramesh, possibly one of the few reflective and articulate persons in the Congress, recently underscored the validity of the causes the Aam Aadmi Party advocates – corruption and lavish lifestyles of the officialdom. It is not clear if Ramesh’s concern is with the issues themselves or their impact on the electoral fortunes of political parties – namely, using anti-corruption or austerity rhetoric to win votes.
To state the obvious, the lavish lifestyles of India’s officialdom happen in an environment of display. In general, the haves tend to flaunt their wealth and emphasise their superiority. Overcoming the widespread social tendency would require significant critical thinking and courage. Kejriwal and his party belong to the younger generation. Hopefully, they will have fewer hang-ups of position, power, and status that are so endemic in Indian psyche, and will exercise public power with greater
responsibility.

(The writer is an assistant professor at
University of Ottawa, Canada.)

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