In Britain it’s known as the ”silly season”, when large numbers of news-makers are on holiday and the media follows silly and often embarrassing stories of little importance. I’ve never heard the phrase used here in India, but it’s certainly been the silly season for the last week or two, with a media feeding frenzy focusing on a twittish tweet by a over self-confident and inexperienced ministerial tweeter, and on a load of false economies foisted on unwilling ministers by Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister, and the ruling Gandhi dynasty.
Let’s deal with the tweets first. When author Shashi Tharoor (below), the United Nation’s communications chief, failed to get himself promoted last year to the secretary general’s job, he retreated to India and his long-forgotten home state of Kerala where he successfully became an MP in April’s general election. Even though he had absolutely no experience of Indian politics, he was immediately made a minister of state in the Ministry of External Affairs and became a much publicised tweeter, telling his followers – there are now 197,778 of them (click here) – his frequently irreverent thoughts.
His ministerial bungalow was not ready when he was appointed in May, so he stayed in Delhi’s upmarket Taj Mahal hotel while, coincidentally, the new foreign minister S.M.Krishna, stayed for the same reason in a suite in the even more expensive ITC Maurya ($400-$2,000 walk-in rates for suites).
Two weeks ago, Mukherjee suggested – and announced he had done so – that they should move out of their hotels, even though they said they were paying for themselves (presumably with hefty discounts). They both did move, Tharoor into a no doubt very comfortable Indian Navy guest house, after protesting he had needed the Taj for its “gym and some privacy”.
Mukherjee then lectured the cabinet on austerity economies that ministers should introduce at a time when many parts of India are suffering a serious drought. There are precedents for governments calling for austerity measures during earlier droughts, and Mukherjee – presumably backed by Sonia Gandhi who heads the Congress Party – may have been trying to assert the sort of central authority that former prime minister Indira Gandhi, Sonia’s mother-in-law, used to exert years ago.
That leads me to a thought that perhaps the most significant – and under-reported – point to have arisen from all this is the authority that Mukherjee has over his fellow-ministers. He spoke, and his colleagues fell in line, some quietly and others after complaining a little. He has for years been regarded as the government’s leading politician and problem-solver, and he now seems to carry more personal clout than Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, whose edicts are always on target but rarely lead to action.
Mukherjee got some grumblings – Sharad Pawar, the agriculture minister, is reported to have initially said he was too large to fit into an economy seat. But Ministers quickly scuttled to airlines’ economy class or switched to trains, and flew abroad on regular flights instead of taking government planes. Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul, who is a general secretary in the party, did so too – Rahul to a train that was stoned by some youths and generated additional expenditure on special security protection.
Cattle-class and holy cows
The irrepressible Tharoor however couldn’t resist replying, when asked by a tweeter how he was travelling, “in cattle-class out of solidarity with all our holy cows”.
Well, cows are regarded as holy in India but that does not mean people like to be told they travel cattle-class, and uproar broke out with sanctimonious allegations that his remarks were “not in tune with the party (Congress) culture”. It looked as though he might have to resign – I reckon he should have offered to do so, but maybe he feared it would be accepted and he’d be jobless again. Anyway, the row now seems to have blown over, and he’s been tweeting responsibly from Liberia, where he has been on an official visit.
But the economies are false, as was a suggestion by Sonia Gandhi last month that party MPs and officials should donate 20% of their salaries to drought-relief. It made a good headline, and some donations may have been made, but most will surely have been recouped in the way that public figures usually supplement their incomes.
Ministers are used to demanding luxuries in their offices – ranging from Spanish tiles and Italian porcelain to wooden panelling and other adornments – and an (inexplicable) toilet demanded by a lady minister “on the back side of her seat” in keeping with Vaastu (Indian feng shui) . (Sounds like a colonial hangover – click here for British MPs expecting to have their little luxuries – including moats round their houses – paid for).
This morning the Indian Express is reporting that the prime minister has told government departments to stop requiring corporations they control to provide freebies that range from cars, air fares and hotels to mobile phones and laptop computers. This is something that ministers and bureaucrats have done for years, tapping corporations for personal and family luxuries as well as work-related items.
The prime minister is again on target with a sensible idea, but he has apparently been trying to enforce this since May and has only just got cabinet secretariat support. Let’s see what happens – and how long it all lasts.