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Mihir S Sharma: Austerity abuse

Government is not supposed to be poor, it is supposed to work for those of us who are

Mihir S Sharma 

It’s all Gandhiji’s fault. Among the many concepts that he helped confuse us about – secularism is not all-religions-treated-equally, people – is “austerity”. People like Gandhiji could blend their public and private personas, weaving what they ate, what they wore, what they recommended for India’s future into one seamless whole. Of course, “people like Gandhiji” is just “Gandhiji”. Everyone else had trouble with it. Yet the country he helped birth, sadly, has trouble figuring this out, hence the current kerfuffle over “austerity”.

Everywhere else, the word has a specific meaning in public affairs: when a country’s spent too much, it cuts down. It reduces entitlements, goes through painful structural reforms, endures strikes and angry effigy-burning and occupied streets, eventually getting its deficit down a percentage point or two — allowing it to access financial markets, rebuild its debt burden, and go through the whole thing again in a decade. This circle of unreason keeps both international financial analysts and professional protestors employed.

In India, “austerity” means “bureaucrats don’t get to fly business class”. This is because generations of confused Indians have apparently deduced that Gandhiji’s crucial contribution to independence was travelling in third-class compartments.

When, this fortnight, the Centre announced austerity measures, what it trumpeted was not, say, a re-look at disastrous diesel subsidies. No; it was the requirement that foreign travel by government officials be curtailed, and that ministries not hold meetings in five-star hotels. Of course, this will make no discernible difference to the fiscal deficit – the actual reason for austerity – but that’s not the point at all. The point is to look austere, not implement austerity. As long as you seem to be suffering by holding conferences in four-star instead of five-star hotels, who cares if the fiscal deficit stays at 5.7 per cent?

The government will get away with it, because of our perennial confusion between public and personal austerity, and our jaw-dropping incompetence with simple mathematics. Consider, for example, the recent attack on Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia by one Palagummi Sainath, famously the favourite journalist of Press Council Chairman Markandey Katju. For a widely-read column in The Hindu, Mr Sainath Googled previous newspaper reports that Mr Ahluwalia had spent Rs 2 lakh a day on some of his foreign trips, and that he had spent 274 days outside the country in his seven-year tenure. (He did not mention that Mr Ahluwalia was the point-man in India’s interaction with the G-20 in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Odd, I’m sure that’s Googleable.) Let’s assume that that’s excessive; and that Mr Ahluwalia and his delegation should have spent half that. That comes to an excess spending of Rs 40 lakh a year. This year’s fiscal deficit is more than a million times that sum. The folly of such 'analysis' is matched only by the cynicism of the UPA, which thinks that responding to laughable smears with its unpersuasive attempts at 'austerity' will answer genuine complaints about its profligacy with public funds.

Yes, we have a genuine problem with the distance between rulers and ruled. India’s civil servants, its entire government sector, live insulated from healthcare worries, the private housing market, power cuts — all the things that spice up our lives, and those of India’s poorest. Perhaps if we threw them to the mercies of the Delhi rental market instead of allowing them to build themselves ever more comfortable enclaves in Lutyens’ Delhi, our government might reform with more urgency.

But to complain about conferences in hotels and work-related travel reveals a bone-deep confusion about the size, nature and purpose of government. Government is not supposed to be poor; it is supposed to work for those of us who are. Nor should the UPA or its critics imply there’s something inherently suspicious and anti-poor about those who undertake those foreign trips, or organise conferences. I certainly doubt that those incensed about Mr Ahluwalia’s spending would assume their own foreign trips have necessarily impacted their thinking. “Champagne socialists” can be the most effective socialists: they know their enemy.

The truth is that it is easy to cynically play on our confusion about “austerity” for political advantage. Television this week was dominated by the crucial question of the bathrooms at Yojana Bhavan in New Delhi, where Mr Ahluwalia’s Planning Commission works. Those who’ve spent an unhappy few hours there can tell you the entire place frequently smells like said bathrooms; researchers would groan at the prospect of meetings there, journalists tried to avoid the beat. It seems they’ve finally tried fixing the drains and renovating the loos — including, in the classic New Delhi manner, VIP access. It cost Rs 35 lakh. Excessive? Perhaps. We have two options: either we suspect a random government contract costs too much. Or we assume it means the guy who runs the Planning Commission is anti-poor. Guess which one our cretinous public discourse decided to run with.

That both attacks on austerity were on Mr Ahluwalia, of course, is unlikely to be a coincidence. He has not had a distinguished tenure; his primary responsibility, the 12th Plan, is still not done, and his pushes to reform have been weak and politically naïve. Sadly, he is still the Cabinet’s most prominent reformist. In attacking “his” spending, rather than that of the government as a whole; you’re arguing that he is not ostentatiously austere — and therefore, necessarily, anti-poor. A cynical manipulation of our foolish confusion of public and private austerity.

Sarojini Naidu once famously said it cost a lot to keep Gandhiji in poverty. The biggest cost, perhaps, is that it seems to have institutionalised hypocrisy.

First Published: Sat, June 09 2012. 00:21 IST