MUMBAI (Reuters) - With a drought looming and elections in some key Indian states approaching, the Congress-led government has embarked on a much-publicised austerity drive that has been slammed by the opposition and ridiculed by the media.
In a country where the hierarchy of politicians is determined by the size of their bungalows and their convoys, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has asked party leaders to give up a fifth of their salaries for drought-relief work, and flew economy on a commercial flight to Mumbai to launch the poll campaign.
Her son and youth Congress leader Rahul eschewed a chopper for a seat on a local train this week, while the finance ministry has appealed for fewer overseas trips with smaller entourages, and a ban on conferences in luxury hotels.
"To be austere should not be reduced to one's line of travel," Congress spokesman Abhishek Singhvi said in Delhi, where one minister protested that he was "too tall" to fly economy, and another said their positions demand they entertain in style.
"It is a way of thinking, a way of living and an approach. In difficult times, it is necessary."
Having won an election this year on a platform of inclusive growth, the Congress party was caught red-faced when the Indian Express reported that Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna and junior Foreign Minister Shashi Tharoor were living in luxury hotels.
"Austerity, in its latest avataar, is a chimera that the Congress has manufactured, rather anachronistically, to package itself as the party of the masses, partaking of their drought-induced suffering," the paper said in an editorial.
Both ministers said they had paid for their suites -- priced at 50,000 rupees ($1,030) and 100,000 rupees a night -- themselves, but the report sparked an uproar in the media.
"This is frankly ridiculous," Tharoor, a former under secretary-general at the United Nations, said on his Twitter homepage to more than 150,000 followers, many of whom questioned his decision to stay in a luxury hotel for three months.
The timing of the austerity drive was suspect, said a spokesman for the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party.
"It is an election gimmick. The prime minister has said the worst of the economic crisis is over, then where's the need for austerity now?" said Madhav Bhandari in the BJP's Mumbai office.
"It's all cosmetic. They will go back to their usual ways once the state elections are over."
India's economy grew 6.7 percent in 2008/09, its slowest pace in six years, and policy makers expect growth could slow to just above six percent in the current year. A poor monsoon has pushed up food prices, a factor that has brought down past governments.
Political parties in India are perceived to be the most corrupt institution in the country, according to Transparency International, which ranked the country at a lowly 85 on its annual corruption index in 2008, below Burkina Faso and Albania.
After recent laws that cap spending on poll campaigns and mandate declaring of assets by candidates, a campaign to tighten laws against corrupt ministers is now under way.
The Supreme Court has ordered the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state to stop construction of elaborate monuments and statues of herself and her party leaders at a cost of about $425 million in one of India's poorest states.
But while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is known for his simple ways, the Congress party's campaign for austerity will be short-lived, predicted Sanjay Kumar, a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
"This is not a sign of a changing political philosophy or a long-term shift in the behaviour of political leaders," he said.
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