The Economy Drive

36 Comments

James Hacker: It (a economy drive) is very popular with the voters, Humphrey. Gives them at chance to help us to finds ways to stop wasting government money.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: The public doesn’t know anything about wasting government money. We’re the experts.

Yes Minister (episode: The Economy Drive)

Sarojini Naidu once wrly observed that it costs a lot to keep Bapu-ji poor. Now far be it from me to conjecture as to how much it costs to get Sonia Gandhi to travel economy class or her son to travel chair car on the Satabdi Express.

But again that is not something we should even be concerned about.

The value of these gestures cannot be measured  in rupees and paise but have to be understood in the context of of their larger symbolic import. With drought in the country and nothing explosive happening, the Congress austerity drive is properly timed so as to catch headlines and engender public admiration since we positively adore the cocktail of renunciation, abnegation and of walking the talk that the Congress president has brought to the forefront. We appreciate it even more when it is contrasted against the Opposition, bereft of ideas and clawing at each other’s necks. And most importantly for the Congress, all this goodwill is achieved without actually “doing something”. Political heaven.

As to actually cutting the costs of the upkeep of politicians on the taxpayer, this is of course as we all know tokenism. If people were actually serious about economy they would be looking at various other more significant contributory factors to a politician’s taxpayer footprint. Like the security cover which is provided to every Tom, Dick and Harry in Delhi with the number of security guards around one’s person being seen as a sign of influence. No one argues that the Gandhis and the Prime Minister, the Home Minister and some of the more important ministers need the best security that the country can provide since there are genuine threats to their safety. But with many politicians, the security cover they carry is often not a function of their threat perception but of their power and pomp (Mahabali Gadhadhari Bheem padhar rahe hainnnnnnnnn)  and whenever adjustments to security covers are made it is made as a political gesture rather than as a genuine measure to cut useless expenses. Of course it may be argued that all politicians have made a great sacrifice for the nation by condescending to lord over us and should be given the best protection that money can buy. After all their worth to the community is different that that of other public servants like say for instance soldiers, whose deaths do not make the headlines  no matter how heroic their actions.

Now as for the specific cost-cutting measure of getting politicians to travel coach class, I think it is totally a bad idea. For one with politicians and their security cover clogging up the narrow lines of the coach class, it will make boarding and deplaning that much tougher for the ordinary passengers making the experience of flying cattle even more unpleasant than it already is (Business class already has a process for priority seating typically on the other side of the entrance and the politician and his entourage can safely ensconce themselves without standing in the way of the real flow of traffic).

Second politicians, responsible as they are for heroically steering the ship of government, still have their limitations and we as a nation are obligated to accommodate them.

Defending his boss, a senior NCP leader pointed out that Pawar found it difficult to travel in the cramped economy space because of his large frame. [Link]

If that is not a weighty argument against the austerity measures I do not know what is.

Yesterday I was watching a program on the telly on the one year anniversary of the great financial crash of last year and how a year later, many investment banks  had largely recovered based on the 700 billion bailout money and corporate remuneration packages were once again reaching the roof. Recalling the logic advanced for the obscenely high pay packets (“They are needed to retain the best talent”) that was held responsible for reckless investments (the linking of “paper” profits to bonuses) and the fact that the financial industry is quick to claim responsibility for profits (the “performance” behind the performance-linked incentives) and equally quick to pass the buck onto taxpayers when their decisions cause catastrophe, I could not but see an analog with our Indian politicians.

Yes, like our Wall Street brokers, these people are also the “best talent we have” and perks like executive class travel, private jets and five star accommodation are the very least we can do to retain them. And like the corporate fatcats they too stand up to claim “performance” like Laloo Yadav did for his turnaround for the Railways and equally eager to write off their failures on the public tab like how Mr. Yadav’s initiative to put middle berths  has cost us 75 crores.

So if the financial poobahs  are raking in the bonuses once again, based on taxpayers bailout money, why do people grudge politicians a little bit of legroom or a little bit of exclusive peace and quiet, away from the sweaty masses whom they so altruistically serve?

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36 thoughts on “The Economy Drive

  1. Politicians should not use red beacons, should not have special electricity connections and should send their children to government schools. That would be truly empathetic gestures. Having said that, even if it is tokenism, it’s a nice gesture from Rahul to travel by train. Atleast he underwent some discomfort — how many politicians are even ready to do that?

  2. No one argues that …… and some of the more important ministers need the best security that the country can provide since they are genuine threats to ….. safety

    Well said GB.

  3. Dudes..talking about austerity drive, traveling economy class isn’t that great after all. Watch Jaya Prada traveling in a bullock cart in a flooded area, screaming like a little girl – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCVSHJHygpg
    Now that’s the ‘real’ austerity, isn’t it? Also, I wonder how the reporters were there when she was experiencing the ‘tragedy’. Talk about publicity stunts [at the cost of the whole world mocking you ;)]. Even the great Rakhi behenaa will shy looking at this..

  4. I don’t just blame politicians but also beauracracy and we the great Indians.

    One of the TV channels was airing a program that India would be a desert after 100 or 150 years due to no monsoon and global warming. I pray it happens quicker than that so that Earth can get rid of the most useless people, i.e., Indians. We, Indians, do not deserve to live in a modern society and we are not social animals at all. Corruption, filthy lifestyle, throwing garbage in neighbor’s house, throwing polythene into drainage pumps, sexual suppression, oh no the list goes on. Hope we get finished off soon.

  5. Why is the Z++ security for Gandhi’s necessary anymore… What is the big real threat? Their threat was LTTE — LTTE is dead… they can do with some security downgrade now. Rahul baba is not the same level of importance as the PM – unless we have a protocol for crown princes in India.

    Secondly – something tells me some astrologer told Congress-wala’s after YSR crash that they are jinxed with pvt planes and copters – (remember Scindia/Pilot/etc..) – and their ‘upaay’ is to fly low.

  6. Well Said GB. However, I would like to take exception to your comment regarding security for the Gandhi’s. If the Gandhi clan is given the kind of security they have now, I am sure this will be a precedence to all the ministers asking for the same security blanket. How would a Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi be different from a Sanjay Nirupam or Shatrughan Sinha?

    Also, I am so sure that this is a political gimmick. What we should do is keep a tab on all the trips these so called ‘saviors of the nation’ make in coach cars of trains and econoy class of airplanes. I am tempted to bet my wages that with no press around, none of the ministers will want to travel with comfort and luxury. And what really gets interesting is that why do the PA’s, Secretary’s and the whole entrouge of these miniters travel Business Class when they can be accomodated in the economy class? Maybe, Pranabda can explain this mystery to all us mortals.

  7. Austerity? For a start we could rent out all of Lutyens’s New Delhi to MNCs (Indian and foreign) and house our MPs in a hostel outside the city or in flats. Why not?

  8. A true incident which illustrates how austerity drive works in India.
    When I was a Professor at IIMC, I was scheduled to catch a very early morning flight to Delhi (from Kolkata) to present a paper in a Delhi conference the same morning. As was customary, I asked for IIMC transport to take me to airport.
    The administrative officer told me: “Sir, there is a recent government circular prohibiting overtime payment as part of an austerity drive. Since it is in the early morning, the driver has to be paid overtime. Sir, can’t you take a taxi? We will reimburse.”
    I told him about the uncertainty of getting a taxi at such earthly hours and the possibility of missing the flight if I did not get a taxi.
    On hearing my problem, he suggested: “In that case, Sir, you rent a car from a private car rental agency. We will reimburse. No bar on that. Or, better still, go to Delhi one day early and stay and relax in a hotel. We can pay the hotel bill. The government circular does not ban that.”
    I told him: “Any of these options will cost IIMC much more than paying overtime to the driver.”
    He said: “I understand. But what can I do? I can not violate the government circular.”
    So, I went to the Director, explained the cost implications of the options and he allowed overtime to the driver by waiving the government circular for me as a special case.”
    Thankfully, I was not important enough to be picked by the media as violating the government’s austerity drive.

    Baba

  9. Baba,

    I was deliberating whether to write this incident myself as I clearly remembered you having told me this but then since I hadnt asked your permission, thought I would rather not.

  10. Why such cynicism? Do we really need to criticize politicians for everything they do?

    This is not a major election year so expecting them to do it for electoral gain is too far fetched. At least you should give them credit that they don’t seek publicity unless its an election year..

  11. Mohan,

    Do look at the names

    1. Govinda and Shivraj Patil both out of favor with the present Congress administration esp Govinda who possibly the Congress will never bring back.

    2.Varun Gandhi: Need I say more?

    3. D P Yadav: Of Nitish Katara fame and now, as far as I know, an Independent.

    In other words, on the basis of the names whose covers are being withdrawn or downsized, it is less about cost cutting and more about pure and simple politics.

    Let them touch the security of someone who “matters” and then I will start listening.

  12. Tweety Pie Tharoor and SMK were paying from their pocket to stay in 5 stars. Now they will be guests of the state. So much for austerity. Rahul Baba says that politicians must practice austerity at all times. Well, lets see…

    Rahul Baba has a gym in his Bungalow (why does a 2 time MP have a Bungalow to himself?) and is a member of 2 exclusive gym’s in the city (how dare Tweety Pie Tharoor stay in a 5 star for the gym). Drives his BMW SUV to Leh (to meet people and understand their problems, silly). He was served special food on the train in special crockery. No paper cups with hot dishwasher liquid masquerading as soup for him.

    Has been out of a ‘job’ for many years and is maintaining this humble lifestyle on an MPs salary. Remember his father was a mere Pilot with IA and later PM in the 80’s. Officially he could not have left millions for Baba. He once famously admitted to Prabhu Chawla (I think) that the cost of educating his kids was a strain.

    It is a lesson for many or us fools who earn many times his official salary and crib about Toor Dal being sold at Rs 99/Kg and Tomatoes reaching Rs 29/Kg at their peak. Have you ever heard Baba crib about that? Do you think he survives on air?

    Come out of it guys. Put your down payment on the BMW SUV (ok Toyota SUV) and drive out to freedom from worries.

  13. Interesting story narrated by Prof Ray! I am sure this happens all over the country in government establishments. There will always be rules, but the people in charge should have the guts to follow the spirit of the rules and not play it safe by ticking the right boxes. The Indian Express has exposed the hypocrisy of the austerity drive by reporting how lakhs are being spent on Spanish tiles and Italian porcelain in renovation work in Ministerial offices:

    http://www.indianexpress.com/news/age-of-austerity-upa-ministers-want-spanish-tiles-italian-porcelains/517723/0

  14. Am I alone in imagining the uncanny similarity of language and style of the father and the son. Notice f’rinstance ‘Thankfully, I was not important enough to be picked by the media as violating the government’s austerity drive’…cheers

  15. I think this is such a joke. Imagine India’s foreign minister goes to meet the bigwigs in Belaraus and he alights from Economy class… And then we crib if India is called a third world country.

  16. Hey GB, I didn’t know you were Prof. Alok Ray’s son (one of the best profs I had @ IIMC – and a remarkably down to earth man). Now I understand the background for your clear and concise analysis!!

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  18. The austerity drive left Shatabdi Express’ passengers in a state of shock after stones were thrown at the windows of the AC coaches by people you can better guess. Not required at all. Let the politicians decide what they want to do. We won’t save a fortune by making the entire cast and crew travel in economy class….

  19. Better to have a neta who spends his life in luxury and takes the correct decisions rather than have a Gandhian who lives frugally but causes innumerable damage to the nation through his incorrect decisions and policies.
    Point in case, the RSS sarsanghachalaks as well as the CPM netas (at least the older ones) live a life of extreme austerity but have wrecked havoc on the nation.

  20. chuckles, nice analogy to the Finanical crisis ..
    One more thing GB-da .. i always see the first comments on your blog read “First… Ipod …” etc… never understood the funda of the iPod 😛 ..

  21. Now Congress MP, MLA will take 20% salary cut. The only people who will do this without a thought will be the people for whome their salary is an insignificant portion of their income. The most corrupt neta’s would be the most eager as for them the risk-reward would be most favourable.!!!!!!!!!!

  22. nettled by the end of his five star life,Shashi Tharoor,recently tweeted that he would ‘travel cattle class’ , in solidarity with ‘the holy cows’ 😀
    the cow party is now baying for his blood, for this rare sensible thing he has said since his UNO days.

  23. I’m disappointed (but not surprised) from some of the commentary here. I think we, the public, need to carefully observe where the Govt. ends up drawing the line on this austerity drive. In general, I don’t care where an MP lives if he’s paying out of his own pocket. If we have doubts about where they get the money in their pockets from, I’d rather that problem be attacked directly than addressed in a round-about way. Another similar and recently proposed law being reviewed suggests that the Government seize private property for “corrupt” officials. Nitish Kumar proposed that this be acted upon as early as an official is charge-sheeted i.e., even before an indictment by the court. This when a recent report suggested 60% of chargesheets against officers are fake and politically motivated is basically a fascist move. Another recent and much publicized finding from a report suggested that the Indian bureaucracy is the most incompetent amongst all Asian countries. What the media failed to mention from the same report is that its also the most under-resourced (on a $ and # of officers basis per capita population) and the most under-paid (highest % gap in avg salary vs avg private sector salary).

    My point is that we, the people, end up demonstrating tremendous cynicism against public officials/politicians, largely stemming from misinformation or our own inertia / ability to act. What we don’t realize is that this creates the perfect enabling environment for select power centres to impose ridiculous sensationalist short-termist and ultimately self-defeating policies. We as members of the worlds largest democracy should be a tremendous check against fascist policies, not the foundational basis for it.

  24. I’m disappointed (but not surprised) from some of the commentary here. I
    think we, the public, need to carefully observe where the Govt. ends up
    drawing the line on this austerity drive. In general, I don’t care where an
    MP lives if he’s paying out of his own pocket. If we have doubts about
    where they get the money in their pockets from, I’d rather that problem be
    attacked directly than addressed in a round-about way. Another similar and
    recently proposed law being reviewed suggests that the Government seize
    private property for “corrupt” officials. Nitish Kumar proposed that this
    be acted upon as early as an official is charge-sheeted i.e., even before
    an indictment by the court. This when a recent report suggested 60% of
    chargesheets against officers are fake and politically motivated is
    basically a fascist move. Another recent and much publicized finding from a
    report suggested that the Indian bureaucracy is the most incompetent
    amongst all Asian countries. What the media failed to mention from the same
    report is that its also the most under-resourced (on a $ and # of officers
    basis per capita population) and the most under-paid (highest % gap in avg
    salary vs avg private sector salary).

    My point is that we, the people, end up demonstrating tremendous cynicism
    against public officials/politicians, largely stemming from misinformation
    or our own inertia / ability to act. What we don’t realize is that this
    creates the perfect enabling environment for select power centres to impose
    ridiculous sensationalist short-termist and ultimately self-defeating
    policies. We as members of the worlds largest democracy should be a
    tremendous check against such stupidity, not the foundational basis for it.

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