Saturday, September 12, 2009

Vigilantism can enrich democracy (September 13, 2009)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Let me begin by complimenting Minister of State Shashi Tharoor for having the courage to be entirely truthful about the reasons why he chose to live in a suite in Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel for the past 100 days or so. Of course, he was being needlessly miserly in suggesting that the attractions of Mansingh Road were confined to a functioning “Do Not Disturb” sign and a well equipped gym. Having stayed many nights in other Taj properties (though, regrettably, never in a suite), I can state with authority that a comfortable bed, opulent bathrooms (where you don’t have to worry about the water running out), efficient room service, wonderfully ironed clothes from the laundry, real Darjeeling tea and a grand plasma TV do add to the attractions. Unlike the West where hotels tend to be efficient but cold, good Indian hoteliers like the Taj know how to take care of their guests.

If, in the case of Tharoor, the alternative to the Taj Mahal Hotel happened to be Kerala House, it is perfectly understandable that he chose the former. Who wouldn’t?

Nor can Tharoor be faulted if, as he has claimed through his all-too-frequent Twitter messages, the Government didn’t have to foot the bill for his suite. If Tharoor paid for his stay from his own resources, I can at best question his imprudent management of personal finances. A good Gujarati, for example, would have put the money into the stock markets and got a pretty handsome return for a 100-day investment. But then, Malayalees, especially one who breathed the air of Calcutta in the 1960s, aren’t born to be Warren Buffets. Of course, hypothetically speaking, if a third party paid for Tharoor’s transit accommodation, it would instantly become everyone’s business.

There is a clear Lakshman rekha separating the personal from the political. As of now, there is nothing to suggest Tharoor crossed it. Envious hacks may ask philosophical questions as to whether it is right for Tharoor to be so unmindful of the prevailing drought. The question may be right but any ethical conflict is strictly a matter between Tharoor and the party that got him to the Lok Sabha. He can save his answers for Sonia Gandhi and Pranab Mukherjee. It is not obligatory to explain his lifestyle to insolent journalists who can’t differentiate between a glass of plonk and Chateau Margaux 1996.

Not that the Indian media is too inquisitive. In fact, the milk of human kindness flows through its collective veins. A good populist newspaper in the West wouldn’t have let Tharoor get a decent night’s sleep in his new transit accommodation. He would have been barraged with questions. What was the preferential room tariff for the suite? What did he order from room service and what were his restaurant bills? Why did he want privacy? The bloodhounds of celebrity journalism in the West would have by now unearthed every available detail, surreptitiously interviewed the man who took up his early morning tea and got a quote or two from the housekeeping staff. Tharoor should be glad that even if Indians think politicians have no right to privacy, they respect it all the same.

All this may sound trivial. In fact, the Tharoor case is quite trivial—unless new and startling facts emerge. But what is not trivial is the perception that every politician is a parasite, out to squander the taxpayers’ money and milk the system dry. This is a serious image problem that the political class as a whole has to confront.

The reason why Tharoor hasn’t been able to move into his official accommodation is because it is still being renovated. But should a bungalow in which a Minister of State resided previously require such extensive renovation that it isn’t ready in three months? Tharoor has said that the earlier occupant desecrated the bungalow by making ugly alterations. He wants to restore the bungalow to its original state.

Aesthetically speaking, Tharoor is right. The question is: why has the CPWD allowed its properties to be desecrated? More to the point, wasn’t the ugly alterations done by the CPWD itself? So, we have the bizarre situation of the CPWD undoing what it did in the first place. And Tharoor’s case is not an isolated one. Throughout Lutyens’ Delhi, public money is being squandered in mass scale renovations of bungalows and flats where ministers and MPs will reside. In normal private accommodation, it takes at best six weeks to effect the transition from one tenant to another. In government accommodation, the renovations are extensive. Who pays for this waste? Why, the taxpayers of course.

Pranab Mukherjee is right to demand a measure of austerity in government spending. But the resistance he has encountered to his modest “request” underlines everything that is rotten about our political culture. Politicians, cutting across party lines, but with honourable exceptions, see their personal convenience as both a right and an entitlement. This is what has given Indian politics a bad name.

In Britain, the scandal over MPs fiddling their allowances provoked a huge scandal. Public indignation forced the Speaker of the House of Commons, many ministers and scores of backbench MPs to announce their retirement from public life. India could do with precisely such a cleansing process. Democracy will be enriched by a bout of unrelenting vigilantism. A Lakshman rekha to delineate the personal from the public isn’t going to be enough. We need to construct a great wall to keep the deviants in check. And shoot those who try to scale the walls or burrow under it. Let the government fix norms and ensure complete transparency.

Sunday Pioneer, September 13, 2009

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