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Mere tokenism 
Sachidananda Murthy
 Story Dated: Tuesday, October 1, 2013 12:49 hrs IST 
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Tokenism from politicians to cut costs at crisis time is nothing new. Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily has decided to travel by public transport every Wednesday showing it as his contribution to reduce use of petrol. He has also asked his Ministry officials to travel either by bus or metro on Wednesdays to show their solidarity with the boss. Moily hopes that his example will be followed by other Ministerial colleagues and would filter through the layers of bureaucracy. But so far other politicians have not shown much enthusiasm.

Chief Ministers have made a show of riding bicycles to work. when Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh did it once, the sight of dozens of cars full of security men, aides and media persons following the Chief Minister led to calculation that more money was spent on the bicycle ride, which had caused massive traffic jams in Hyderabad.

Interestingly the bicycle is the electoral symbol of Naidu's party Telugu Desam. When the then Fiance Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced austerity measures in 2010 and told ministers to travel by economy class, ministers travelled by what Shashi Tharoor had called cattle class, while the top bureaucrats and ministers in state governments continued to travel by executive class. But two heavyweights in the UPA government - physically and politically - said Mukherjee's orders applied only to Congress ministers, and anyway they could not squeeze their big bodies into economy class seats. They were Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and non- conventional Energy Minister Farooq Abdullah.  

Another symbolic gesture to cut costs was made by president Neelam Sanjiva Reddy in 1977 when he offered to stay in a small bungalow instead of the humongous Rashtrapati Bhavan. He relented only when Prime Minister Morarji Desai told him that the government will still have to maintain the palace on the Raisina Hill, whether the President lived there or not. Once he moved in, Reddy was comfortable with the grandeur of the building.

When petrol prices had gone up in 1971 due to the first oil shock, Atal Behari Vajpayee, leader of then Bharatiya Jana Sangh, protested in a novel way. He rode in a bullock cart to Parliament house, and said his ride by a petrol-less conveyance indicated the common man's anger. A decade ago, Congress leader Renuka Chaudhury drove a tractor to Parliament to highlight the plight of the farmers.

Moily's symbolism is not accompanied by any move to reduce the guzzling of petrol and diesel by ministers. Every minister has about eight cars at his disposal in Delhi, with public sector undertakings under the ministry supplying vehicles. They are used by personal staff members, who are otherwise not entitled for an exclusive government vehicle. but these staff members justify the usage saying they work round the clock, and can be summoned anytime.

They also have to accompany the minister, whose car normally accommodates a personal security officer and one aide. But the ministerial entourage is normally a bigger one. Politicians like Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayavati measure their own prestige by the length of their motorcades.

Tailpiece: P. Chidambaram prefers flying solo. Even when he was Home Minister and handling issues relating to terrorism and Maoism, he travelled alone. But intelligence bureau operatives often traveled incognito for his safety, without the minister's knowledge.
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