Almost before the departing British arrived back home, their “Gandhian” successors made a beeline for the mansions and other accoutrements of colonial power, seeing it as their due. If Mahatma Gandhi ever protested at this embrace of luxury by his flock, the same has not been recorded in the history books. Clearly, he would have wanted the successors to Empire to live in surroundings humbler than the Viceregal Palace, now Rashtrapati Bhawan, or York Road, now Teen Murti Bhawan. Given that the desire of Lord Louis Mountbatten (formerly Battenberg) to continue to reside in the same residence, which he occupied as the Viceroy fused with the determination of the Nehru Cabinet to ensure that Mountbatten remained behind to guide the new team in its first months in power, it was a foregone conclusion that the first Governor-General of India would not stay in an official residence more commensurate with Gandhian values.
However, once Chakravarti Rajagopalachari succeeded Mountbatten, Government of India ought to have shifted the new G-G to less pretentious surroundings. However, neither Rajagopalachari nor any of his successors — including the Janata Rashtrapati Abdul Kalam — made any move to get themselves moved out of the building that ought to have housed not a single individual but the core of the Central government, the Prime Minister’s Office as well as the Home, Defence and Finance Ministries, with the Ministry of External Affairs being handed over the Ashok Hotel in Delhi’s diplomatic quarter. Will President Pranab Mukherjee create history by asking that the official residence of the President of India be shifted to Hyderabad House?
It is not only the laws and practices of the British that are being followed in their entirety by the successors to Empire. The Mughal rulers of Delhi scattered gravesites across the city, most with grandiose structures atop. The same tradition has been followed by those who have taken over from the Mughals and the British, our political class. From Mahatma Gandhi’s last accommodation to Jawaharlal Nehru’s to Indira Gandhi’s to Lal Bahadur Shastri’s — the list continues — the capital of India is filled with mansions where the deceased occupants met their end, or would have were they not travelling to Tashkent.
None of these qualifies as simple, even by the standards set by Mukesh Ambani or Bill Gates. These dwellings, as well as the other British-era palaces dotting Lutyens’ Delhi reek of opulence, and once in them, our “public servants” usually take care to ensure that their wealth, declared or otherwise, rises to at least the same scale as their residences. Where is any Gandhigiri in such attitudes or lifestyles? Until our VVIPs endure the same cramped surroundings and lack of water and power as the rest of us, they will not care that 99.995% of the country is having a rough time because of the cupidity of the rest.
Anna Hazare fasted to create a bureaucratic monstrosity termed the Jan Lokpal. Instead, he ought to have demanded that ministers, high officials and other Delhi-based VVIPs get turned out of their colonial bungalows, and stay in small flats. The British-era bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi ought to be auctioned off to the highest bidders and the money used to fund an expansion of the judiciary sufficient to ensure that the average case in India gets disposed of in six months rather than in 30 years.
Finally, Anna Hazare or his successor needs to ensure that Manmohan Singh facilitates and not hinders the process whereby Lalu Yadav ends his loneliness in prison by being joined by the dozens of other top leaders who are even more venal than he has been. The Supreme Court judgement taking away their membership of legislators from convicted felons ranks along with the Keshavananda Bharati case as a high point in India’s judicial history. Now is the time for followers of the Mahatma to come to the aid of that underprivileged and battered section of India’s society, the honest.
There has been much talk of minorities and majorities, of the forwards and the backwards, and how the taxes collected from one section of society ought to flow as largesse to other groups. However, thus far the Honest Citizen has been ignored, even as a web of policy gets created that facilitates the growing prosperity of his nemesis, the crook. Beginning with the reality that the actual cost of getting elected even to municipal office is higher than the money legally spent on a Lok Sabha seat, and moving on to the manner in which rules and regulations have been crafted so as to ensure that as many greedy, grasping palms get greased as possible, the “system” in India has evolved into a con game. The result has been a Gresham’s Law that forces outwards the honest and upwards to higher office, those with sackfuls of currency to spend. Now that Manmohan Singh has been shamed into leaving alone Justice Patnaik’s seminal judgement, the flow of the bent and the greasy towards legal accountability needs to get stepped up. Each pothole, each drop in international rankings of an Indian university, each indigent and every illiterate is testimony to the wilful neglect of their responsibilities by politicians in India, for whom “charity begins, and ends, at home”. Until several dozen VVIPs follow Lalu Yadav into prison, one or two jailed politicians are unlikely to make much difference in the way this country is being governed.