Posted by: John Elliott | September 21, 2009

Twittish tweets and false economies in India’s silly season

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.

Shashi TharoorHis 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.


Responses

  1. The Shashi Tharoor (non) issue is an indication of the politics within the Congress. Even the BJP reacted only after the Congress commented. Paratrooped men, sidelining party seniority are a target especially when Spokes(wo)men who commented has been not rewarded with a Minister post for shouting in sun-dry television networks for years

    Austerity in the government (which is only namesake) is welcome as it looks vulgar to, say , have a Minister for Rural Development running shop from an urban 5 star hotel.

    Intentions are good but we have to wait for smart interpretations like 10 bullet proof cars being flown for Rahul Gandhi’s(austere) tour on the ground in Tamil Nadu.

  2. After Tharoor’s infamous Tweet, I am sure
    many guys in India have signed up for Twitter which was sort of confined to a tiny segment of internet savy Indians! Expect more tweeting in the future, not of all of which would be melodious !

    A few shining examples of austerity from Orissa……………

    A senior bureaucrat in Orissa has commandeered three cars from a corporation he chairs in spite of a government directive that no PSU can give cars to Ministers or officers. Including his official car as the Secretary of the department, this worthy uses four cars and he has quite a reputation for honesty!

    A log book extract revealed the use of such cars for VIPs (no names mentioned!) Wonder what offiical duties these VIPs discharged while using this cars for ostensibly public purposes!

    Our Ministers and babus regularly hire helicopters (not now of course, due to fears by their wives lest they go the YSR way!) for hopping over to places which are just 30 -100 kms away.

    Austerity in full force in a state where 43% of the rural population subsist with Rs. 12 per day income!

  3. Now, suppose nobody had made a fuss about the extended stay of the two ministers at luxury hotels and then a year later, the Opposition raked it up. Then, it would not have sounded “silly” at all. This way, at least the Congress takes the sting out by taking the initiative.

    About H.E. The Twit, all of us desi cattles are so deeply indebted to his Twittish Eminence for descending from Heaven and leaving behind the oh so refined New York intelligentsia and sanctify this dung heap where us cattle live. Our bovine heads hang in shame, coz. we never thought of Him as Secretary General of UN till High Priest of Left (also from Kerala) issued fatwa to then Government. Despite reneging on commitments made and angling for permanent Security Council membership (which meant you can’t back your citizen for Secy Gen, no?) the cattle yet again failed H.E. Yet HE did not fail cattle country. Standing for elections and becoming minister and keeping fit and trim through Gym-in-Taj and saving lives through Twit device (See Mail Today some days ago for this marvel of technology).

  4. John, nice one. This is one where you have discussed quite a load of general issues –

    I particularly like where you discuss how the politicians demand from their corporations lavish donations. Are any of the politicians reading this???

    More importantly, I wish to ask you, why you have not thought fit to blog on the indian media – television, news and print. Could I evince your interest to blog on the above. Would be one helluva post?

    thank you Shailesh – any particular aspect of the Indian media? je

    John,

    Paparazzi today in India is thriving, I reckon you’d agree with that. However, while the industry in general is agog with the thought of Corporate Social responsibility CSR, ‘The Media’ (at least in India) for some reason believe they are above all that.

    3 issues to present my argument:

    # 1. 26/11 episode in Mumbai, every news channel in India was trying to repeat all the gory details in a battle for eyeballs. Any productive outcome of it? Not really, as the media has forgotten the issue and moved on.

    # 2. There was this issue when a man was attempting a self immolation, in Punjab somewhere, and a cameraman stood by capturing the whole episode, not budging an inch to save the man in flames. here’s the link where I posted a comment <>, for which the editor replied saying the cameraman was but doing his job!

    # 3. The media, has not talked about, for instance the wealth declaration by politicians – which would be useful in lobbying for more transparency and truth coming out in the public domain. While the regional media did talk about this issue for principally political mileage, nothing much happened of it.

    The Media (atleast in india), I believe, is not behaving responsibly enough in bringing into the public memory, or keeping alive certain burning – current issues. What say you?

    thanks Shailash – and yes, I do think the Indian media regards itself, as you put it, “above all that”, and is far too sensational (especially tv). It has been put on a pedestal by society here – but remember how much all the players enjoy going on tv and multiplying the trivia! Definitely a blog subject for the future


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