India has always prided itself on having a different political culture and our leaders once led austere lives. That austerity is no more to be seen, but Ministers are still expected to be sensitive about the social and economic realities of the country and not flaunt their wealth
The right and the wrong of Ministers staying for extended periods in five-star hotels has been debated threadbare but more on an emotional plane. Here are four arguments why it is inappropriate conduct and what distinguishes a Minister from an average, moneyed man.
First, a Central Minister ranks among the top 100 people in the country, constitutionally and symbolically. Unlike other countries, where there is no adulation expended on leaders, in India, Ministers are treated with awe and deference. But on assuming office a Minister has to set the example he would like others to follow. He also forsakes the right to privacy after office, something which a civil servant or a judge can take for granted.
Accessibility to the public becomes a part of a Minister’s official duty and that is why the Government provides staff support to enable visitors to be received and telephone calls to be returned day or night. Theoretically and practically every telephone call, every visit and every letter is accounted for. Information on where the Minister goes, what he does, whom he meets, automatically falls in the public domain. Even the Minister’s staff car logbooks can be sought under the RTI because for a Minister there is no such thing as a private life. And to pay for cocooning oneself from the world is like paying for a privilege which has been renounced and then bragging about it.
Second point. A politician is expected to be austere and Mr Rahul Gandhi deserves credit for saying so at a time when flamboyance has become the norm. A five-star hotel automatically denotes opulence which can be purchased with money. Official status cannot be purchased with money and has therefore to be valued for its own sake but especially so by anyone fortunate enough to be conferred that special standing. Staying in a five-star hotel and paying for it with personal money signifies a wilful descent from a ministerial status exhibiting preference for a particular lifestyle.
Even if he eats the most spartan food and wears home-spun clothes, a five-star hotel denotes an atmosphere too far removed from the lives of those a Minister represents to go unnoticed. It is called professional decorum — a factor which prevents a Minister driving around in a BMW, gyrating on the dance floor or knocking back cocktails in a public place. It is just not done, howsoever rich and howsoever accustomed to a particular lifestyle he may once have been. If Caesar’s wife has to be above suspicion, a Minister’s life has to be above reproach.
Third, a Minister is expected to be conscious of and extremely disturbed by the inequities that beset his countrymen. He has to respect what the Government is capable of providing and by moving into a hotel he conveys disdain for the courtesies extended. True, nothing will be achieved by blindly accepting whatever is given but in the process there is the question of public perception. The city offers perfectly acceptable options which are easy to garner. The armed forces, the public sector undertakings and the State Raj Bhavans all have extremely well-appointed guesthouses which are both comfortable and secure. True, they are unlikely to have a sauna, a swimming pool or a state-of-the-art gym but when equally important Ministers of the Government are seen taking three rounds of Lodhi Gardens or sweating it out in a nearby health club, it should not become the end of the world for a select few.
In the UK there was a public furore when Ms Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary (Minister), admitted one of her four children into a special needs school at a personal cost of £ 15,000 a year because that child was dyslexic. Three of Ms Kelly’s children were already in state schools and she too was paying for the special school personally. But public perception was against her decision, provoking broadcasters and blogs to go ballistic.
And finally there is the question of political correctness. When Prime Ministers go on an occasional holiday to Manali or the Simla Hills they stay in a Government-appointed guesthouses or the Raj Bhavan. Staying at a private hotel automatically confers legitimacy on the establishment and gives the hotel high visibility and business, in preference over others. And when Ministers choose a particular hotel and live there on an extended basis, unconnected with official duty, it is perceived by competitors as dispensing favours.
India has always prided itself on having a different political culture from, say, Southeast Asian countries such as the Philippines or Indonesia. Both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru took pride in a certain austerity, and even today Manmohan Singh and LK Advani, among others, are respected because they are seen to have led principled and simple lives. Of course, these standards have slipped, especially in recent decades. But even so it’s gratifying that India has never been run by someone like a Ferdinand Marcos or a General Suharto. In some ways the choice of Mr Shashi Tharoor and Mr SM Krishna represents an erosion of a tradition that — though often respected in the breach — is something Indians are proud of.