Saintliness is everywhere. The latest example is that of Nitish Kumar, who is following in the footsteps of Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president, “Saint” V.M. Sudheeran in ensuring that bootleggers and smugglers thrive in Bihar, the way they soon will in Kerala. Matters such as the consumption of alcohol are best left to individual consciences, and should the state leap in, the results are certain to be disappointing. A couple of years from now, when illicit liquor gangs multiply their operations in Bihar and the state gets even more deficient in revenue than is the case at present, Nitish may reflect on the high cost of virtue to governance in the state, already in tatters because of the involvement of Lalu Yadav & Family in the administration. Indeed, the RJD leader seems to have left even that maestro of “keeping power in the family”, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, a bit behind in the number of relatives that he has inserted into prime slots. Of course, saintliness does not extend as far as giving up the mansions and other perquisites of power. Even while garlands get strewn at statues of Mahatma Gandhi, none within the political class aspire to follow the Mahatma in living in huts and going “third class” in trains, not even “Saint” Nitish. The odds are that the Bihar Chief Minister will follow the example of the prime saint in Indian politics, Arecaparambil Kurian Antony (Defence Minister under Manmohan Singh) and avoid controversy by the simple expedient of not taking any decision. In India, speed in decision-making often gets punished, extreme slowness—indeed, paralysis—never.
Of course, there are those in politics who make zero pretence of sainthood. They are in the game to enjoy a good life, and the more filled their existence is with goodies, the better. Despite the bad press that he has been receiving because of his addiction to helicopters, it must be said to the credit of Eknath Khadse that he has not hidden his love for luxury the way so many others in his politician tribe do, but has been open about living a life suffused with privilege. Of course, if Eknath Khadse is representative of politicians in Maharashtra (and indeed, the rest of India), it is unlikely that he would have even seen the inside of a car during the decades of youth. Even a Bajaj scooter may have been too much of a luxury, although presumably a bicycle would have been affordable to the Khadses. It would be later, as he ascended the ladders of office, that the Agriculture Minister of Maharashtra would have begun to suffer the mysterious disease of the legs that afflicts those in posts where luxury cars, fawning assistants and colonial bungalows become an everyday facet of existence. Had he a bit of political savvy, Eknath Khadse may have decided to go around the parched precincts of Latur by bicycle, or—given the fact that he is no longer a teenager—pillion on a motorcycle. However, once the worthies who get sworn in as ministers cross to that stage of advancement, to travel except by car or a yet more advanced means of locomotion becomes an ignoble act.
Indeed, many politicians have climbed to a yet more elevated perch, refusing to travel except by charter flights or helicopters. Such, for example, are the favoured modes of transport of Lalu Yadav, who has spent much of his life ensuring that he and his not inconsiderable family have reached a level of economic advancement that would place them in those income levels where comfort gives way to luxury and to waste. Mr Yadav is hardly an outlier in such an expansive—sorry, expensive—approach to life, indeed, his is the norm.
The lifestyles of the families of the politically powerful are, with rare exceptions, comparable to those who have acquired great wealth. The families of an Abdul Kalam or a Narendra Modi are the exceptions, remaining in the same circumstances as they were before their loved one reached the top of the protocol chain.
But why be harsh on Eknath Khadse? He may have wanted to walk to Latur from the nearest railhead, but were he to do so, would his family be able to bear the shame of a minister in their ranks actually using his legs for locomotion rather than as props while reclining in a ministerial chair? And what of Khadse’s followers? Would they not feel as though they were second-class citizens, especially when faced with the hangers-on of those who refuse to travel otherwise than by chartered flight or helicopter? After all, the minister has to keep up with others of his tribe who are the successors to the British colonial masters of India. It was no accident that Jawaharlal Nehru (a self-declared socialist) chose for himself the most palatial residence in Delhi after the Viceregal Palace (which he would have occupied, had it not been frequented by Louis and Edwina at the time). It was no accident that every one of the colonial laws and practices were adopted (a few with a modicum, of adaptation) by the “people’s representatives” who took over from the departing Brits.
Both the hypocrisy of “Saint” Nitish and the openly flamboyant lifestyle of Eknath Khadse have come to exemplify politicians in India ever since in 1947 one group of colonial masters got replaced with another.