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Indian politicians stop flaunting wealth

Publication Date : 19-01-2014


Vasundhara Raje, chief minister of the desert state of Rajasthan, is an erstwhile royal princess who grew up in a palace and is often spotted at high society parties. Since she was returned to power in state elections last month, she has gone on an austerity drive.

The two-time chief minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) turned down the chief minister's bungalow for more modest dwellings, halved her security escort and takes commercial flights instead of using the state plane. She has given instructions that official cars, including hers, must stop at all red lights.

The sari-clad 60-year-old is following a new trend in Indian politics: that of clean, simple living.

The rising popularity of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) - aam aadmi means common man - has had a sobering effect on the typical Indian politician's love of ostentation.

The political poster boy for this no-frills movement is AAP leader and now Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal. He does not have a security escort, drives his own small car and dispenses with the red beacon which allows him to pass red lights. His trademark muffler, part of his "common man" attire, is now seen as a style statement.

"The new kind of politics AAP has initiated is about simplicity... and is forcing other parties to change their style," said Professor Sanjay Kumar of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

"But this kind of austerity, cutting down on security, living in a small flat, may not last long... After (the general election), the parties will forget," he added.

In India, a politician's clout is often measured by the number of personal security guards he has, the length of his motorcade, and the size and location of the official residence. Some chief ministers have been known to have up to two dozen cars in their motorcade. These often obstruct other vehicles on the road and create chaos because they can ignore the red lights.

These are just some of the perks of being a politician in India. For instance, a first-time MP gets a free government flat in central New Delhi, free power and water, 34 free business class air tickets a year and unlimited train travel. He can also make 150,000 free phone calls a year.

Parties across India have jumped on the austerity bandwagon.

In Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and politically important state, Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party made news when he reduced the number of cars in his motorcade from a dozen to four.

Jharkhand's Chief Minister Hemant Soren has ordered government officials to stop using the siren and red beacon and his ministers to have a smaller motorcade.

The BJP, concerned about losing its core votership to the AAP, has taken to highlighting its otherwise low-key chief ministers who have a simple lifestyle.

The most prominent has to be Goa's Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, who was once photographed hitching a ride on a scooter to work. Mr Parrikar criss-crosses the state without an entourage and people can reach him on his personal e-mail.

"If Parrikar were in Delhi, then the entire country would know how a well-educated person can also be simple and humble," the BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi told a recent rally in Goa.

Other models of frugality include West Bengal's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, of the Trinamool Congress. She lives in a modest house, does not own a car and wears a white cotton sari with a blue border.

Some members of the ruling Congress party appear to have taken a leaf from AAP-style politics. Two of its MPs in Congress-ruled Maharashtra state held a protest to demand that the state government cuts power tariffs "to help the common man make ends meet".

Senior Congress member Jairam Ramesh held up Defence Minister A. K. Antony's "austere lifestyle" to show that there are lots of people in the party who lead a simple lifestyle.

But who can forget the excesses of some politicians? Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati Kumari would celebrate her January 15 birthday with great pomp every year. In 2011, her birthday cake weighed 55kg because she turned 55 that year.

Such large-scale and lavish celebrations were seen as a symbol of Dalit empowerment. Mayawati, a Dalit, was just showing poor voters how they, too, can dream big. The Dalits were once known as untouchables.

This year, however, she did not hold any birthday celebration, opting instead to address a rally where she slammed political opponents.

"The AAP effect?" local media wondered.

"I think the season of cutting back is in fashion. It is a presentation of conspicuous poverty,"' said Professor Shiv Visvanathan, a sociologist.

Will this last?

"I think it is temporary. People join politics to make money."


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