Friday, September 18, 2009

Austerity - A One Act Farce for Every Season

Pranab Mukherjee, the Finance Minister sounded the bugle earlier in the month to announce the new and improved version of the Farce called Austerity for the new season.

Sound of the Bugle

The prelude was the reported displeasure of his party President Sonia Gandhi that S.M.Krishna, the Minister for External Affairs and Shashi Tharoor, the Minister of State in the same Ministry had been staying in five star hotels running up bills worth crores of rupees, to be met from the tax payers’ funds. The Finance Minister “requested” both the Ministers to immediately move to more appropriate accommodations. The ministers grudgingly agreed, while vaguely hinting that they had made their own private arrangements for stay as the official accommodations were not ready.

This incident was the cue for Pranab Mukerjee to announce further austerity measures also involving restrictions on flying in Business Class (domestic) and First Class (foreign).

Deja Vu?

The 2008 Season
Story idea by Manmohan Singh, Script by Chidambaram

The 2009 Season

Story idea credited to Sonia Gandhi, Script credited to Pranab Mukherjee

The Congress Party has obviously been honing the art of diverting the attention of the gullible public whenever any burning issue, especially one that burns large holes in the people’s pockets, comes up. Just over a year ago in early June 2008, the lead was taken by the Prime Minister when he asked the Ministers “to severely curtail expenditure on air travel, particularly foreign travel, except in cases where it is deemed to be absolutely necessary.” This prompting was promptly followed up by the then Finance Minister Chidambaram whose Ministry issued guildelines for expenditure management.(see here) Incidentally, such guidelines were issued just nine months before, in September 2007 as well. What was the ostensible reason and backdrop for the 2008 season Austerity? It was the “continuing rise in global crude oil and commodity prices”. The Prime Minister wrote his letter just a day after the Government had announced a back breaking increase in the price of Petrol and Diesel by Rs. 5 and Rs. 3 per liter respectively and the price for cooking gas by Rs. 50 a cylinder. The immediate victims of the Prime Ministerial missive then were four ministers Chidambaram, Deora, Mani Shanker Aiyer and Ambika Soni who were forced to cancel their scheduled foreign jaunts.

The reason for the new season’s version of the Farce of Austerity is the drought that the country is facing! The relevant instructions from the Finance Ministry say the measures are necessary: “ view of the current fiscal situation and that arising out of insufficient rain in large parts of the country, and the consequent pressure on Government’s resources”. Last year, the story idea was provided by the Prime Minister. This year, the same story idea is shown to be that of Sonia Gandhi. The script was written last year by Chidambaram whose name for the same script with minor changes is replaced by that of Pranab Mukherjee.

The Real Objective

It is very clear to those who are well versed in the ways of the Congress party that the benefits of any such austerity drive are only incidental and the real motivation is provided by other factors. Last year, it was to divert the attention of the people from the uncontrolled inflation and the unpleasant increase in fuel prices announced by Government. This year, it is not due to the drought, but to take the focus away from the the intolerable increases in the prices of all essential food products including dal and sugar brought about largely by the successful mismanagement of the Agriculture Ministry by Sharad Pawar, even before the effects of the drought on the coming crop. Whatever be the reason for the austerity drive, it has for the time being diverted the focus of the public attention to relatively harmless discussions about austerity, comments of some ministers, etc. which the Government does not mind as long as the more serious issues (of which there is no dearth) are moved backstage.

How the Farce unfolds....

The Farce as it is being played is fully adaptable and capable of improvisations by the characters as the situation demands. Here is how fools, knaves and others showed their improvising talents.

Cast of characters 2009

It was Shashi Tharoor, one of the two men who were the immediate targets of the Austerity who candidly and rightly interpreted the incident as “silly-season” - a time usually marked by news stories over frivolous matters - controversy. But Shashi Tharoor, a greenhorn in Congress culture has apparently not yet imbibed the kowtow culture where no one says that the emperor has no clothes. Nor has he matured as yet from the twitter-twatter culture that thrives on fluff and frivolity. So he followed up his earlier comment with a rather tasteless remark calling the economy class in air travel as “cattle class”, although to be fair, it is a term which even those who travel by that class do not mind using. The often abrasive and impertinent spokesperson of Congress party Tiwari, said that his party members were even ready to travel in the plane’s cargo hold. Hear, hear! Vilasrao Deshmukh suddenly became conscious that they were a government for the aam admi so why should they mind travelling together with the common man.

However, at the Cabinet level, many ministers from the senior to the junior objected. Kamal Nath and the first time Minister Anand Sharma wanted to travel First Class while travelling abroad. Farooq Abdullah objected to economy class. Sharad Pawar objected to travelling economy class. After all, what use is the personal wealth and official power with a body to match, if one cannot at least travel in any class that one pleases with the tax payers’ money? He also indulged in absolute pettiness seeking clarification whether foreign dignitaries could be treated in five star hotels. Maran raised a more serious objection to some ministers like Home, Finance, Defence and External Affairs travelling by special aircraft as per their entitlement. Pawar’s second in command Praful Patel made the general approach of politicians on austerity very clear: : “... austerity is now beginning to be required by politicians back least we have to appear to be austere, if nothing else". (see here)
So, this is the aproach: to appear to be austere.
The underlying tone of whatever the Ministers and others said was that such measures were meaningless and impinged on their privilege to spend public funds. Pranab Mukherjee, the scriptwriter quickly changed the script to reveal the real plot. While appearing to reject the Ministers’ demands for travelling in higher classes, he also said that “these were unusual times and austerity measures were for one year only.” There, the cat is out of the bag. The measures are only for the year which could be interpreted as only for this financial year, i.e. for another seven months. (see here)

Trivialities and tomfoolery

At the same time, to show that they were taking the advice seriously albeit reluctantly, the ministers have started falling over each other to let the media know that they had already started travelling economy class as if that is the sole barometer of austerity.

To cap it all, the President of the Congress party Sonia Gandhi travelled to Mumbai by economy class. Her son too, in a well-publicised manner, chose to travel to somewhere by train in the chair car. Both of them managed one more opportunity for cheap publicity from the news-starved media which revels in such trifles. But for the faithful, it was one more in a string of "sacrifices" made by the family for the country. And as far as Rahul, the son, is concerned, by fortuitous coincidence, a few boys pelted stones on his train as it passed by on the way. After that incident, how could the security agencies not take notice? Security is paramount and so, these two worthies might be forced to give up making such sacrifices in travel matters in the future, much against their wishes. How very convenient! A couple of points, however, need to be noted. It must be presumed that the travel bills of Sonia Gandhi and her son would have been borne by the Congress party and not by the taxpayers. At the same time, the higher bills for their enhanced security while travelling by such insecure modes would have to be borne by the exchequer. What do such gimmicks achieve then?

The substance of it...

Talking about the austerity measures on travels, it needs to be asked as to what is the actual amount of savings expected to be achieved which would be meaningful to relieve pressure on finances due to drought, which is supposedly the reason for the Austerity. In the first place, the instructions issued last year in June 2008 were expected to be followed with proper monitoring. If the Government claims to be at all serious, it ought to have first told the people in a transparent manner the achievements from the previous austerity instructions. According to Budget estimates for 2009-2010, the travel expenses under the Head Establishment are Rs. 2,506.67 crores, a jump from Rs. 1860.26 crores in the previous year. Of this, the travel expenses of the Ministry of Home Affairs have jumped from Rs. 25.99 crores to Rs. 82.62 crores. The travel expenses estimates of The Cabinet are Rs. 179.22 crores which for some strange reason were only Rs. 17.82 crores in the previous year. (see here) It must also not be forgotten that the Government had ordered in 2005 not one but three aircraft for the travel by the President and the Prime Minister, at a cost of Rs. 937 crores. The first aircraft was delivered in August 2008 followed by the other two and the maiden flight was inaugurated by the President on 1st April 2009. One aircraft is understandable, even two, because we want to project ourselvs as a superpower with such show. But three?

Taking a larger canvas, travelling expenses are just a drop in the ocean when seen in the context of the overall expenditure budget of the Government of India. No one is saying as to what is being actually done or achieved with regard to plugging the massive leakages in developmental expenditures, normal revenue expenditures, plan expenditures and expenditure on populist schemes meant for the poor but utilized to create more wealth for those who have the authority to use the funds. It is hard to see any worthwhile action because obviously the vested interests of the politicians will be hurt.

Hypocrisy starting from high places
All this fakery is resulting in an ostentatious display of mock austerity that at best can achieve only paltry savings at the end of the day, when compared to the overall spending by the Government. The Congress party is quite adept at such sham, stunts and subterfuge at all levels as seen in Andhra Pradesh recently where it transpired that the stories of over a hundred people committing suicide on hearing of the death of their beloved leader were fake and people had been actually paid to attribute deaths from other causes to death from shock!

And this hypocrisy is starting from the top and trickles down at all levels and becomes pervasive. Just one example would suffice to show how absolutely phony is the concern of the Congress Party President, Sonia Gandhi for austerity. The Government has been releasing advertisements without any real reason in national newspapers at the slightest pretext ostensibly highlighting this achievement or that plan. All these advertisements prominently carry a photograph of the Congress President Sonia Gandhi who is no one in Government. Several billion rupees have already been spent and are continuing to be spent from the tax payers’ money primarily to show her photographs with a regularity which people are increasingly finding quite repugnant. It is simply not conceivable that Sonia Gandhi does not see her own face in such advertisements which serve no other purpose than to constantly keep her in the public eye. She is also certainly aware that her picture should not be there in official government advertisements at all. She is also not ignorant that the advertisements cost money and that the entire expenditure on such advertisements is wasteful and useless. Yet, she is fully relishing and revelling in the free publicity that she gets at State expense rather than spending the money from her own pocket or that of her party. What is this, if not two-facedness and pretense and dishonesty? If she believes at all in what she is trying to preach those in Government, she should have already shown her honesty and asked her party to reimburse to the exchequer whatever amount has been spent on advertisements with her picture in them and asked her yes-men in Government to stop at least showing her picture in Government advertisements. This will certainly not happen and she will still keep looking at her picture in the advertisements and smile to herself. And the sycophantic ministers will keep misusing their authority to show their own picture along side hers, and feel as pleased as she would. Even Pranab Mukherjee the Finance Minister does not have the courage to do what he should have done in this matter i.e. ask the Congress Party or Sonia Gandhi to pay up for the advertisements. Is it not ironic that the ministers who are working in Government and responsible to the people have to curtail their expenses whereas someone who preaches such austeriy but has absolutely no accountability continues to enjoy free publicity at expense incurred illegally by the Goverment just as in the case of Mayawati? Obviously for Sonia Gandhi, austerity begins at home - someone else's home.

The party and the Government have indeed been developing an odious record when it comes to hoodwinking the people. The present Farce on Austerity is just a manifestation of that mentality. Let the people pay their taxes and let them not worry how it is spent. They can wait for a new version of the Farce in the next season.