“In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity”—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Simplicity is an attribute that has been most emphasised upon by Islam, and countries including Pakistan, bearing the Islamic flag should have been the ones with maximum number of examples of the mighty, especially those in politics and military-civil bureaucracy, adopting a simple lifestyle. Alas, this is not so! In fact, the converse is more appropriate in the case of the Muslim World. From Indonesia in the east to the Sub-continent in south Asia to Middle Eastern monarchies and to the different African states, one can easily observe the extravagant life-styles of not only their rulers and their principal henchmen but also their corporate and religious giants. Whoever lays claim on being a leader emerges with a pomposity that has the impression of defying all forms of modesty. Perhaps, the mind-set of the public whose eyes are blinded by fanciful glamour is the one characteristic, the advantage of which can easily be taken anytime.
This certainly does not mean that statesmen and leaders should freely move around without taking sufficient precautions because there have been many assassinations on account of vulnerability of the victims. The twenty first century, between 2001 and 2021 has already witnessed the killing of eight sitting heads of state in addition to those who were of prime importance in their own sphere of public life. This, however, does not justify that leaders should travel around in miles long cavalcades of cars and ambulances to show off their strength at the expense of the taxpayers’ money. Unfortunately, the idea that a larger convoy will depict greater importance of the ever-fragile human beings within, is not only far-fetched but highly ridiculous. A couple of armoured vehicles should suffice but in their bid to appear majestic they choose to pillaging public funds along with an army of cronies who enjoy licking some drops, off the cascade of artificial grandiosity. The adrenaline rush of power and sheltering under the canopy of temporary flamboyance are the driving forces behind these transient people who eagerly jump upon the bandwagon of authority, of course for their own vested interests.
At this juncture it is important for the younger generation to learn exactly what austerity in public life really means. Since there is a dearth of relevant examples in our own country, one is left with no choice but to highlight the lives of those in our neighbouring country, India. At least nine of their leaders have impressed the world with their simplicity and humble lifestyle. Among them are Lal Bahadur Shastri, prime minister (1964-1966) whose son once reported that his father never used the official car for personal purposes. In fact, he bought a family car with loan that was repaid later by his widow. Another prime minister, Narasimha Rao (1991-1996) never tried to take advantage of his high office. He is known to have taken a loan for financing the medical education of his daughter. President Abdul Kalam Azad (2002-2007) died without owning any property. Same is the case of Anna Hazare, a leading social activist, who earns enough only to sustain a simple life. Manik Sarkar, elected chief minister (CM) of Tripura is considered as the poorest CM of India as he neither owns a house or car. Another former CM of Goa, Manohar Parrikar was often seen in ordinary roadside shops sipping coffee with the local residents.
Even the Indian female leaders do not lag behind men in their austerity as against our flamboyant women parliamentarians whose expensive attires and branded accessories often become the grapevine’s topics for discussion. In 2011 Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigmy Y Thinley while speaking about the CM West Bengal, Ms. Mamta Bannerjee, said: “I am impressed by the way she conducts her personal life. It is a life of austerity. A leader should live in austerity if he or she is truly committed to raising the people out of poverty. I understand that she is a leader who is ready to sacrifice her life. When I met her, I expressed my appreciation over her refusal to accept the kind of security that is absolutely necessary for a person of her position…I have studied and made enquiries about what motivates her. Today, I am convinced that her motivation is the service of people.”
These words of appreciation are sufficient to chalk out the image of genuine leaders whose life is a walking talking symbol of the significance of austerity in the true sense of the word. They are highly committed to public service and are blessed to have families, supportive of their choice to denounce extravagance to lead modest lives and abstain from taking undue benefits from their powerful positions. NR Narayan Murthy, one of the principal founding members of Infosys, (according to Forbes, 602nd largest public company in the world) is said to live in the same flat in Bangalore where Infosys was first conceived, even though he could easily have moved to some huge mansion. As per writings of his wife Sudha Murthy, his only indulgence is purchasing books, he cleans his plate after meals, never bribes (on demand) even if it means paying heavy penalties for release of goods at the port and has high ethical values, his favourite past-time is reading, has no time for movies etc., is loyal to the core as apparent from him being the last founder to officially join Infosys, after two years just because he was part of a project at Patni Computers (former employer) which got delayed and rather than walking away to build his dream company, Murthy waited to complete his tenure with Patni.
These illustrations are a far cry from the lavish life-styles of our public officials including the mighty generals and corps commanders who occupy sprawling bungalows with fort-like walls and yet have barricades set up around these walls to keep commoners at bay and to enhance their fragile security. Their families, especially spouses, are far more arrogant in their behavior with ordinary folk. They are given undue importance wherever they go and in whatever they do. While retired Indian military officers like the highly decorated late Sam Manekshaw live in simple apartments, our police officers and judges of higher courts move around in luxury cars with escorts. Under these circumstances, how can one expect to end the so-called VIP culture of our country? Time is ripe to dwell on these aspects and lay out new rules to prevent extremely wasteful expenses and misuse of tax money, luxuries which an indebted country like ours cannot afford.
The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)