Monday, September 21, 2009

CONSPICUOUS CONSUMPTION AND CONSPICUOUS POVERTY

"Mr. Sharma, can you comment on this damning article appeared in Times London . Our politicians, bureaucrats have already crossed lines into Criminality with their corruption and inefficiency, now our High flying media has joined them with gross delinquency of "basic duty" by not reporting on this. We the people of India are equally responsible..."

How does one respond to such a question asked by an Indian who is deeply upset by the stark reality of the conspicuous poverty that afflicts over 880 million Indians, in the light of the vulgar and conspicuous consumption flaunted by their affluent chosen representatives? Does one agree with him that the leaders elected by these poor - the rich don't give a damn about voting - are no less than criminals because of their corrupt ways? Or does one take the line of the urban rich, exemplified by media tycoon Prannoy Roy, who ask as to what is wrong if political leaders stay in five star hotels and otherwise splurge, as long as they are spending their own money?

Is it in order to view businessmen, CEOs, dons and politicians through the lens of the same money? That is indeed what many are doing, to justify the extravagance of politicians. Should politicians not be accountable to their "employees and customers" like CEOs are? If in a "company" of 1.3 billion people, more than 67% have a sub-human existence at less than $ 2 a day, should a little over a thousand of its top executives living in Delhi happily splurge tens of thousands of that amount, whether out of tax payers' money or their own earnings? Should not their pay and perks and lifestyles be linked to their pathetic performance due to which the income of so many 'employees' remains so low, 62 years on?

That brings us to another question. Where have much of the earnings of most of these politicians come from anyway? How have politicians who have no occupation other than politics become multi-millionaires? The rich Sachin Pilot, for example, is the son of a middle class Air Force pilot who joined politics. The late Pramod Mahajan, who was shot by his brother over money, manifestly 'made' thousand of crores as a politician, not an industrialist, if rumours are true; he had no other source of income, one hears. Jagan Reddy, the overnight-rich-businessman-turned-politician son of YSR Reddy, could certainly not have become anywhere close to a multi-billionaire had he been just another businessman operating in an honest environment. The examples are endless and well known. Everyone knows that barring say a Shashi Tharoor or Vijay Mallya, who earned good money before they got into politics, there will hardly be an Indian politician who has become wealthy as a politician by honest means.

Worse than the conspicuous consumption of these leaders is the "austerity drive" that has recently been launched by the government, for only a year, because of the drought. Ironically, had the government kept quiet, much information about the colossal waste of tax payers' money by politicians would have never come to light, along with the fact that this drive is just a farce to con India's people.

Sections of the media have been and are sleeping with politicians and political parties, no doubt. Let us not forget that the media is another business that has to survive and grow in the thoroughly corrupt environment that many, including the UN, have spoken about repeatedly. Every one knows that in India things don't move unless the system is "oiled" well. What better way to do it than keep the really powerful politicians in power really close?

Notwithstanding the above constraint, we must accept that there still are some in the media who can speak, and have done so, even if guardedly. They are the ones who have told India that this whole drive is a farce. Let us start from the very top. Sonia Gandhi travelled Economy Class once to Mumbai with heavy security. Sagarika Ghose told us that she saved Rs 7,500. Rahul Gandhi travelled similarly protected by train and, as per some channels, 'saved' Rs 445. Karan Thapar asked the question that if Rahul Gandhi really feels that politicians have a duty to be austere, then "why is he, a bachelor, living in...one of the largest government owned bungalows...he is not even entitled to it". MJ Akbar has, in similar vein, called this austerity an eyewash and asked as to why Tharoor, Krishna and Nilekani should not be made to contribute the money that they were spending from their pockets for their hotel bills to the Prime Minister's Relief Fund!

It may be recalled that Rajiv and Sanjay used to stay with their mother, Indira Gandhi. Today, Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka occupy three sprawling bungalows that must cost the government a huge packet to maintain and secure. If the Gandhis genuinely identify with the 880 million poor they represent and are sincere about cutting out wasteful expenditure, then the family should stay together in one bungalow. Robert Vadra, who faces no security threat, should also be taken off the SPG protectee list. Many crore rupees, not a few hundred, will be saved. But no, Rahul Gandhi will talk of only the khadi kurta pajama that he wears to define 'austerity'.

It is not that all in the media have done their bit. As far as I know, there has been no meaningful linking of the conspicuous consumption of the politicians and this austerity drive with the extreme poverty that has now been reported by Times London and earlier by others. And as always, there are the usual suspects in the media who are fuming at the security being provided to politicians, except the Gandhis, of course. Then there those who actually are grateful to Sonia Gandhi's for the austerity drive, and who resent politicians not for their filthy spending or for travelling first class, but for the special treatment that they get at airports. That is the only place where media maharajahs and maharanis lose out to them!

For many in India's media, India is no more than an exclusive bubble that contains them and politicians alone. Of late, film stars too have made an entry - with great TRPs, they bring in the moolah for the media, don't they? 880 million Indians live on another planet.

"Also look at the pic on the article.... Is this the symbolism of British media.... was there a need to put such a striking and appalling picture on the web page...", asks the same agitated Indian. In my view, the photograph that graphically depicts "India's damned generation" is apt for it. It has hurt him because it has forced him to confront an ugly reality that he and I and many others want to wish away, and don't want the West at least to tell us about. We desperately want to believe only that India is firmly on its way to becoming an economic giant. We want to see the gleaming Delhi Metro but not the poor shitting by the sides of the railway tracks; we want to talk of Mumbai as India's commercial capital but not as a city where 54.1% people live in slums. To top it, very few of us know or even care about the grind that life is for the poor in rural India.

How far our politicians have gone from the people and how arrogant they have become about their extravagant lifestyles is best exemplified by Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel who says mockingly about the austerity drive: "at least we have to appear to be austere, if nothing else". How things have changed in the last sixty years. Democratically elected leaders have become rulers, royalty, above and separate from the people whose voice they were meant to be. No wonder a media personality says: "Hypocrisy is essential for public life". Hypocrites and worse in politics have little to fear. Powerful sections of the media understand their predicament and are one with them too.

But, it is no use blaming the media and the politicians alone. Conspicuous consumption is existing gleefully with conspicuous poverty only because all of us have let it take root. We have allowed politicians to deflect our attention from their criminal ways to issues of caste, region and religion, knowing full well that they are not going to add even a rupee to the recurring income of the really needy even as the coffers of the greedy are rapidly filled. Also, as some of us have moved up the ladder of prosperity, we have conveniently forgotten that many, many more remain at the very bottom, filling their stomachs on empty slogans like "garibi hatao" and gullibly believing in fake austerity drives undertaken by their so-called leaders.

So, if we really don't want to see disturbing pictures of stark poverty staring at us, we all have to do our bit to either make our leaders change themselves, or change our leaders. Till that happens, for 880 million Indians, things are going to change very slowly indeed.

Picture: Timesonline
---------------------------------------------------------
Readers may also read: Austerity and aam aadmi: games politicians play!