LONDON: With power comes responsibility. The lifestyles of those in public life in Britain set an exemplary modern standard for a democracy. The ministers get no sprawling imperial bungalows; no police escort and road traffic is certainly not stopped for their entourage to pass.
The photograph of David Cameron help move his belongings went viral on Indian social media. The fact that the former British PM might travel on public transport or go away for holidays like any other family seemed to surprise many in India.
To begin with, only senior Cabinet ministers are provided cars. This is for security reasons and mostly only when carrying their ministerial briefcases, which would draw attention to them in a public place and make them potential targets for crime. Most ministers have to make do with access to the government car pool scheme when the need arises. Only the very top two or three get Jaguars—a British brand—that is armoured for security. Cars that carry top members of the royal family are provided for by their respective companies; free of cost to their top “brand-ambassadors”. At a time of serious economic uncertainty, even the British royal family has recently been slimmed down to fewer members in tune with the needs of the modern democratic world.
There has been a long history of British Members of Parliament, senior officials and judiciary travelling by public transport. The incumbent Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, whilst Mayor of London, travelled on his push bike every day to City Hall, come rain or storm. It made him a celebrity in London and ensured two consecutive terms—unusual for a Conservative with his background—a man in touch with the people. He is also responsible for putting in place a very effective public bicycle hire scheme and dedicated cycle paths along the busy roads of London; some of which are heritage medieval lanes which would clog up ceaselessly if more cars were added. There are a number of MPs including Members of the august upper chamber, the House of Lords, who cycle to Parliament; more who use public transport. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (95), consort of Her Majesty the Queen, in Her Majesty’s absence is known to travel in a non-descript taxicab that looks exactly like any other London taxi. Even the Queen is known to join him while on non-state duties like watching a theatre performance. Many members of the royal family have been seen in taxis.
Judges remove their medieval wigs and gowns, the garb of judicial anonymity and take ordinary buses home, not drawing any attention to themselves. I recently bumped into a serving judge of the Supreme Court doing his own shopping in a busy supermarket not very far from the law courts. I have seen a serving law minister standing in queue for an ice cream in a popular seaside village.
The ministers get no sprawling imperial bungalows, no police escort, and road traffic is certainly not stopped for their entourage to pass. There is certainly no “entitled accommodation”—stately houses in various grades comprising four or five bedrooms, servant quarters, lawns and garage. In the UK, packers and movers arrive at 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister shortly after election results are confirmed. Within hours, the new PM moves in.
Such space is made available for the PM with the view of entertaining international dignitaries, thereby serving diplomatic objectives.
That even serving Prime Ministers go away for holidays just like any other family to popular destinations in the presence of other tourists—not to a destination that is cordoned off in a holier than thou fashion—might surprise most people in India where state and PWD guest houses all over the country are not just for politicians, but for their friends and relations.
What may seem a Spartan ideal is altogether not unknown in India. Mahatma Gandhi famously travelled only in third class railway carriages or as a steerage passenger aboard ships. He chose to live in the working-class neighbourhood of East London whilst attending the round-table conference.
V.K. Krishna Menon, while he was High Commissioner, lived in a bedroom within the precincts of the Indian High Commission in Aldwych, refusing the fabulously palatial Hyderabad House in Kensington Palace Gardens, often dubbed the billionaires’ row in London.
Narendra Modi has attracted immense respect for keeping his family away from politics and the manifold riches that it could bring.
Perhaps India has lessons to learn from the mother of democracy. Engendering a holier-than-thou aura in a democracy is not one likely to ensure stability in the long run. The British model that India claims to follow is an imperial one put in place to keep the peace in a police state that is fit for no democracy.
Ravi Kumar Kandamath is a lawyer and public-affairs -consultant based in London.