January 12, 2014

RESEARCH: About Austerity, “Aam-admi”s, Arvind Kejriwal and atrocious biases

Posted by Ashwini Anand(published after content sharing agreement with Indian Republic)
India: Often bitten, now shy
As a country that has suffered due to abominable amounts of corruption over the decades, India, as a nation, is disgusted by the grotesquely lavish lifestyles that the bulk of its leaders enjoy, all financed by the exchequer. We were understandably disgusted by reports of Mayawati flying private jets to pick up sandals, installing her own statues worth crores of rupees in her bungalow and spending 20 crore rupees on the landscaping of her bungalows. We were also justifiably nauseated by reports of the repugnant displays of wealth during the wedding of Jayalalithaa’s foster son where 3,500 cooks prepared food for over 150,000 guests who were hosted in a ground spanning 50 acres. No wonder we were thirsting for leaders who led simple lives and did not indulge in ostentatious displays of wealth.
However, the real reason we hated such lavish spending was the fact that we always suspected that the source of all this wealth was corruption! Would you or I cringe so much if an honest businessman who paid his/her taxes spent money like water or even set fire to it? I suspect that our reactions would not have been so visceral.
Kejriwal’s austerity: A breath of fresh air?
Amid this orgy of opulence, it is a breath of fresh air to see the approach of Arvind Kejriwal, the “aam-admi” Chief Minister of Delhi, right? This Chief Minister travels in a simple blue Wagon-R car without the trademark “red-beacon”, lives in a simple five room flat and has refused personal security cover. In an era where the politician has become the symbol of all that is wrong with the country, such simplicity is unprecedented. Right? Wrong! While Arvind Kejriwal, the current darling of the media who can do no wrong, has been deified and praised to the sky, there are several other Chief Ministers and high profile politicians who lead very simple lives.
While I believe that Kejriwal has indeed taken some admirable steps to demonstrate probity, he has gone overboard with symbolisms, focused excessively on optics and has been given a lot more credit by the media than he deserves on this front. To start off with, living in two five-bedroom duplex flats that Kejriwal was forced to turn down amid public pressure isn’t exactly austerity at its zenith. But, that is missing the point. A Chief Minister should be judged more by his work than by the number of bedrooms in his house. But, since this article is centred on austerity, let us continue with that train of thought for the moment.
Kejriwal is neither the pioneer of the school of austere living nor the strictest adherent of it
Talking of austerity, Kejriwal is neither the pioneer of the school of austere living nor the strictest adherent of it. Here is a non-exhaustive list of present Chief Ministers who lead simple lives, often even more simple than Kejriwal.
a) Manohar Parrikar: The Goan “Man next door”
Much before Kejriwal’s “simple” ways captured the attention of the media, Goa’s Chief Minister and fellow IITian – Manohar Parrikar started living without personal security, government bungalows or elaborate entourages. He still travels by economy class, uses taxis when outside Goa, wears simple clothes and is often seen riding pillion on scooters or walking around the streets of Goa without any security, interacting with locals.
b) Mamata Banerjee: West Bengal’s “Didi”
Not to be left behind, Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal travels in a humble Maruti Zen without any red-beacon, wears plain cotton sarees & rubber slippers. She did not accept a government bungalow either. She is once famously said to have walked barefoot on the tarmac of Kolkata’s airport because the strap of her slipper broke. Her official chambers have no carpets and only have wooden chairs with cushions.
c) Manik Sarkar: Tripura’s frugal “Sarkar”
Often said to be India’s poorest Chief Minister, Tripura’s four-time Chief Minister, Manik Sarkar has a total net worth of Rs 2.5 lakhs. He receives a monthly salary of Rs 9,200 which he donates to his party, which in turn pays him a subsistence allowance of Rs 5,000 per month. Usually clad in a cotton “kurta-pyjama”, Manik Sarkar enjoys a squeaky clean image and has not been accused of corruption even by his bitterest critics.
Kejriwal refusing security in the name of austerity: A great achievement or wanton irresponsibility?
Most people will agree that several politicians have abused the provision of security to them by traveling in obscenely long convoys of government vehicles, using up hundreds of policemen for personal security and inconveniencing the rest of the world by holding up traffic for tens of minutes whenever they travel by road- all in the absence of any real threat to their lives.
But, what about the cases where there is a real threat to the lives of leaders? The recent attack on the AAP office in Kaushambi, the serial bomb blasts before a Modi rally in Patna and the slapping incident involving AAP leader Prashant Bhushan show that threats to the safety of leaders are not figments of an idle mind’s imagination. Under such circumstances, is it a sin to accept a security cover deemed proportional to threat perceptions?
In fact, I would argue that when an elected representative of the people, with a constitutional responsibility to work towards the welfare of the people of his/her constituency, refuses security in the face of a threat to his/her life, it is wanton irresponsibility. When a leader takes a sacred oath to fulfill constitutional responsibilities, his/her safety is no longer a personal matter but one that concerns the people who elected him/her. The electorate has a right to expect its elected representatives to deliver on their promises. Dead leaders cannot do that. And guess what security does…. it helps prevent leaders from getting killed.
So, while I am not arguing in favour of every minor politician having hundreds of gunmen and scores of armored vehicles in the name of security, I am very much in favour of a reasonable amount of security cover for politicians who face threats to their lives – Kejriwal included.
We are getting our priorities wrong
As a nation, we seem to be getting our priorities wrong. When we judge a leader, should we focus on his lifestyle or on the results that he has delivered? What is more important-whether the leader is living like an “aam-admi” or whether he has managed to pull out the “aam admis” from poverty to make them “khaas-admi”s? If I were a daily wage laborer, whom would I prefer – a leader who creates jobs and boosts my income or a leader who lives like a pauper (out of a misplaced sense of self-righteousness) and does nothing for me? Whom would a poor farmer prefer – a Narendra Modi  whohas presided over 9.6 % p.a. agricultural growth across his first seven years as the C.M or a Mamata Banerjee who lives without security, wears rubber slippers and has only managed to deliver 2.56% p.a. agricultural growth since she took power? Would the said farmer hold it against Modi that he lives in a house provided by the government? I doubt so.
When the farmer, the true “aam-admi”, doesn’t care, why should the media? Why give 24/7 coverage to Kejriwal’s “austerity” and “simplicity”? Aren’t there bigger issues to worry about, such as growth, development and governance?
Human biases: Never judge a book by its cover
Appearances can be deceptive. We are conditioned by society to illogically see some things as “good” and some things as “bad”.  In essence, we are inherently biased towards outward appearances. To prove my point, let me ask you a question. You have the option of picking one of the following two leaders to lead your country.  Whom would you pick?
Candidate 1
Candidate 1 was a decorated war hero who followed a vegetarian diet, abhorred smoking, was a teetotaler (did not consume alcohol) and was reputed be a kind employer who would often celebrate the birthdays of his employees and give them gifts. He made his vast personal fortune almost exclusively through the royalties earned on the books that he wrote.
Candidate 2
Candidate 2 was reputed to be lazy, slept till noon every day and would drink about a litre of whiskey at night. He was feared for his terrible temper and often humiliated his colleagues.
If this were all the information you had, and were asked to choose between Candidates 1 and 2, to lead your nation during an extremely difficult period, who would you chose? 9 out of 10 people, whom I asked this question, chose Candidate 1. Had you done the same, you would have chosen Adolf Hitler, the man responsible for the Holocaust involving over 6 million deaths. Candidate 2 was Winston Churchill, probably the greatest Prime Minister that UK has ever seen. His decisive and bold leadership during World War II prevented what would have otherwise been a humiliating defeat for Britain.
What does that have to do with austerity?
Choosing leaders just on the basis of the perception of “austerity” or “simplicity”, without evaluating the other, more important metrics, can lead to huge mistakes like the one that 9 out of the above 10 people made.
Am I stupid enough to argue that austerity  is bad?
I am not arguing against austerity, nor am I advocating an opulent lifestyle for politicians at the expense of the exchequer.  All I am saying is that austerity alone proves nothing. I am also arguing that there are things that are much more important than austerity, such as the quality of governance provided by the leader and the economic growth that he has been able to achieve for his state.
Bottom line
The adage goes – “Never judge a book by its cover”, rather judge it by its content. I say, “Don’t judge a politician by how many bedrooms his house has or the number of policemen protecting him.” Judge him by how much growth he has delivered, how many people he has lifted from poverty and how effectively he administers his state/country. The media would do well to wait to see how Kejriwal performs as the Chief Minister before extoling him incessantly and projecting him as the savior of all mankind.
This article is the second part of a two part series to identify the real AAM AADMI.
This post originally written by Ashwini Anand has been sourced from The Indian Republic at Indian republic/bigpicture


varun said...

excellent write up