Last Sunday, I flew back from Chennai to Delhi on a discount airline.
Seated in the row behind me was P. Chidambaram, India’s home minister. The only visible concession to his importance—and let’s not argue the fact that he is an important person—was the empty seat next to him. Maybe he booked two tickets; or maybe the airline decided not to seat anyone next to him (the third seat in the row was occupied). I was quite happy that the seat was unoccupied—it may have been interesting to have someone opposed to Telangana (the government had blinked over the creation of a separate state a few days ago) sitting next to him, but it would have also been tiresome and noisy.
I was impressed with Chidambaram’s behaviour for several reasons.
A few months ago—after the government got serious about austerity measures—I sat next to the chairman of a state-owned company, in the economy class of a flight to Mumbai. The first thing this gentleman told me was that he was used to flying business. He said the same thing to the three stewardesses who attended to us, hoping to get the kind of service airlines usually reserve for people flying business class.
I don’t think Chidambaram spoke a word during the flight—except to decline when a stewardess asked him whether he wanted to buy coffee or a sandwich.
On the flight to Chennai from Delhi (last Thursday), a minor politician from Andhra Pradesh was seated in the row ahead of mine. He insisted that his luggage be placed in the space reserved for suits. And he spoke loudly through the flight, dropping names of known and unknown politicians to his neighbour. The gent was received by a small army of sycophants or supporters or both on his arrival in Chennai.
Chidambaram’s luggage travelled in an overhead bin a few seats behind his; he unloaded it himself, and took the same bus the passengers did on disembarking (I expected a car to be waiting for him on the tarmac). And he was received by a solitary security guard at the terminal.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
I know that politicians sometimes do such things just to send out a message, but it was heartening to see the country’s home minister—the only one apart from the Prime Minister and the President who is entitled to his own plane—behave like a normal person. It was equally heartening to see the airline treat him so.
Of course, the fact remains that it is people in minor positions of power who can get away with throwing their weight around or flouting austerity norms. They are important enough to have their way, yet minor enough not to be recognized.
PS: I almost didn’t write this piece because I thought it could be seen as being “gushing”, but two of my senior editors persuaded me otherwise. As one of them said: “Why should we only write about the negatives?”
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