Time was when Mrs. Indira Gandhi was widely considered "the Empress of India’’ with Western journals gleefully seizing a descriptive tag that once belonged to Queen Victoria in the heyday of the Empire. Though not prime minister, Sonia Gandhi has inherited that mantle and we would urge President Mahinda Rajapaksa, often described as Maha Rajjuruwo (Great King) on wayside banners the police did not tear down, to consider what Sonia has done about political functionaries living it up at the taxpayers’ expense. Two Indian ministers, we report in our world news pages today, have been asked to leave a New Delhi five star hotel where they had pitched camp while their official residences are being renovated. They’ve been asked to move into bhavans (India provides accommodation in Delhi for functionaries from the various States in the capital for official business). These, though not luxurious, are well located and adequate. There’s also been a ruling, supposedly at Sonia’s prodding, that ministers fly economy class on airplanes but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to be backing off at least halfway on that one according to the latest reports.
Profligacy at taxpayer expense has in our country been vulgar for far too long and few leaders, if any, have attempted to cure this disease. Official bungalows are grabbed by political functionaries no sooner they take office and expensive renovations follow. Who can forget the minister who installed a lift in his two-storey government residence for the convenience of his ageing mother who lived there. A ground floor room for the good lady, we are sure, could have been easily found in that palatial mansion. The minister explained away that abuse saying he did not only for his mother but for all mothers! Even many of those ministerial worthies who live in their own homes in the city have on account of their official feathers been collecting fat allowances for the privilege of living where they always lived.
A contributor to these columns wrote recently about the pisso on Havelock Road careering madly along the highway with camouflage uniform-decked security escorts waving the hoi polloi aside with white-gloved hands. Tight security for various people assessed to be at risk undoubtedly was necessary at a time that is now past. These arrangements must now be re-examined and necessary adjustments made. Lavish official entertainment is more the rule than the exception. It is not only the guest who partakes but the host also and the taxpayer foots the hefty bills. Even a simple press conference cannot be held without cocktails, lunch or dinner to follow. The public exchequer is considered a bottomless pit and those who preside over it ladle out the gravy lavishly to their friends, supporters and sundry hangers-on - not forgetting generous dollops for themselves.
In India Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has found that given the prevailing culture of profligacy, it is not easy to take away perks. One Indian minister said that his legs were too long for Economy Class. Another found his Russian hosts embarrassed when they didn’t find him in the Business Class cabin. There is one simple rule of thumb that can be applied in these cases – if whoever was flying was paying his own fare, would he opt for economy or go the whole hog and pay double for Business Class? Would the aforementioned lift installer, for instance, have done it at his own expense? It is not only ministers and government officials who do the grand on expense account. Private sector people too are adept at this game when they are wining, dining or flying on the company account. To paraphrase the inimitable Sir John Kotelawela, the name of the game is bedaganilla (serve your self) as long as the spoon is in your hand. Human nature being what it is, that is inevitable to a greater or lesser degree at all levels. What is necessary is that managers, whether it is the president managing his jumbo cabinet, an official running a department, a company boss sitting at the top of a conglomerate or even a mudalali in a tea boutique optimize efficiency and minimize wasteful and self-serving expenditure.
Sonia Gandhi has called for austerity in the context of a severe drought that has sapped the livelihoods of millions of peasant farmers who form the backbone of India. She naturally feels that at a time that large numbers of her countrymen are undergoing great hardship, it is immoral and indeed obscene that elected officials spend huge public resources on themselves. It is unlikely that her desire for austerity in government will be fully met even though those like her prime minister, the epitome of simplicity, are a shining example to holders of high office. But even if these are halfway or even 25 or 10 percent met, it will be the first steps in a long journey. We in Sri Lanka, both our people as well as our leaders, have many things to learn from India. Hopefully the power that be will move to do likewise. Given our champagne tastes despite our toddy incomes, Sonia’s will be a hard act to follow. But let us try.