Millennium Post

Making austerity fashionable!

Being austere will not only eliminate wealthy people’s attitude towards material gains, but also showcase their sensitivity towards India’s reality

Very recently, social media was abuzz with videos of a wedding invitation card - each costing about Rs 3 lakhs. The invitation was for a wedding of two individuals who belong to eminent Indian business families. There were jokes about India's annual per capita income being less than the cost of one invitation. I believe all those jokes had an undertone of frustration and helplessness about India's problem of inequality. This article isn't about inequality but the common, and often forgiven, behaviour that perhaps rubs salt to the wounds of those not so lucky to be born in families that can afford expensive invitation cards and destination weddings. Not that expensive weddings are bad or unethical, but answer these two questions to yourself before you ponder further: 1) Would you enjoy a meal at a fine dining restaurant on the day you receive a big salary bonus?, and 2) Would you enjoy the same meal at the same restaurant, if I parade 100 malnourished, poverty-stricken kids in front you? Obviously, these are dramatic situations, but if you are like the many, I have asked this question to, there would be an enhanced sense of guilt in the second situation. Do remember that the facts on the ground are the same in both situations. Since you have chosen to be at that restaurant, you have worked hard for it and deserve a luxurious meal. You have chosen to spend money in a particular way and you are free and entitled to do so. The only difference is a sense of awareness and recall that comes handy in the second situation. A feeling that your success, no matter how hard-earned, wouldn't have been possible without a bit of luck, a bit of help from others around you, who aren't enjoying a part of it.

Wealth = Power = Responsibility?

Don't get me wrong, I am not against the wealthy and famous. They are tremendously valuable for any country. They seed dreams in the minds of common people. They create enormous economic and social value that is essential for any country to lift the poor and downtrodden out of their misfortunes. And I wish we had more wealthy people in India. I am also not suggesting that the economically lucky are ethically inferior to the economically disadvantaged. But perhaps, the lifestyle of the former class has the power to determine what a large section of the society aspires for and this power should come with a lot of responsibility. Before dwelling on the part of responsibility, let me illustrate the quantum of this power. Here's one illustration - go to Chandni Chowk - Delhi's famous market for bridal shopping and you can see shopkeepers selling 'first copy' (imitation) designer wedding dresses that famous actresses wore on their weddings - from Anushka to Sonam to Deepika. The limited point here is that famous people, from politicians to businessmen, athletes to actors, have the power to influence choices and dreams of common masses. It is because of this reality that celebrity endorsements are so common. But Indians are also pragmatic, most of them are aware that they can't reach the levels of wealth and comfort as the stars of their choice, and hence settle for someone close - a neighbor, a friend or someone whose level of opulence is achievable (things such as buying an expensive phone, a fancy motorbike, etc., fall in this category). But do remember that since people aspire for the immediate up, this aspiration game is a 'trickle up' phenomena i.e., I aspire for the one above me and the cycle continues until it culminates at the top.

Now comes the responsibility part. Campaigns for social good, be it Swachh Bharat or Animal Rights, that various celebrities and leaders are associated with deserve due appreciation. But with the power they possess, a lot more can be done. They can be the role models of humility and simplicity through the power of example. Doing so would not only showcase their sensitivity towards India's reality but also eliminate the jealousy and 'I am ready to do anything' attitude towards material gains. What would be even better is that those at the top use their power to create intellectual and spiritual aspirations. And many are already leading commendable causes.

Austerity benefits the wealthy and famous

Moreover, I would also argue that it's in the self-interest of wealthy and famous to embrace an austere lifestyle. What do most public figures crave for - not more wealth, but legacy - the charm to be remembered with fondness. If public figures are looking for a legacy, they should remember that a man who wore just one piece of cloth, didn't have a car collection or a multistoried house got his photograph on India's currency and a national holiday after his birth date. Now it's true that not every famous person can be Mahatma Gandhi, but no matter how much fame or wealth one has, legacy can only be earned, not bought. Further, it's not just about long-term legacy but some sensitivity in the lifestyles of the wealthy and famous can bring short-term tangible gains to them as well.

Let's go class by class:

A) Politicians - What can be a better incentive for a politician than a lifestyle that helps him understand the voters' needs. Instead of using his SUV and running his operations from a palatial home, if he can live among the masses, wouldn't he be more trusted as a representative? There is a reason people cherish the memories of former President APJ Abdul Kalam and not so much of his other counterparts.

B) Business Class- An erstwhile liquor baron is in the UK running from a trial in India and the popular perception is that he is a willful defaulter. There have been many such cases in the past, but the 'King of Good Times' stands out because people can easily recall his flamboyant lifestyle. The common feeling being - if the banks can catch common people who are unable to pay their dues on time, why can't they catch a wealthy man who took loans for a lavish lifestyle? Capitalism which has so many benefits can appear less crony if the opulence associated with it is diluted. I would argue that if the gentleman had been frugal, he wouldn't have been demonised to the extent that he is today. Not just that, the likes of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates enjoy the goodwill they do, predominantly because of what they did beyond their businesses. Now don't confuse this with CSR. But I can bet that Bill Gates' won't sponsor an invitation worth 3 lakhs for his daughter's wedding.

C) Celebrities & other Public Personalities - People in this class should remember that they have a shelf life. Once they phase out of public memory, their simplicity can help them sustain their public presence. It's their choice to be remembered by their car collection or their humility.

D) Bureaucrats - What good is a bureaucrat who lectures on the need for moving to public transport but himself uses a chauffeur driven car? Like politicians, bureaucrats can be much more effective at their jobs if they start living the problems that common masses live on a daily basis. A very intelligent bureaucrat told me about the utility of empathy in policy making, so why not empathise by living the lives of their own policy subjects?

Again, there is nothing wrong with accumulating and flaunting materialistic luxuries in a country still trying hard to provide basic amenities to most of its citizens, it's just more decent. It's like the choice of clothes based on the occasion. By doing so, as Alfred Adler said, we can start seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another!

(The author is a Young Professional, Economic Advisory Council to Prime Minister, NITI Aayog. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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