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?