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GOOD OLD FILTER COFFEE - Austerity and waste in South Block

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By Diplomacy - K.P. Nayar
  • Published 8.07.09
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The new external affairs minister, S.M. Krishna, is changing the flavour of South Block. No longer are visitors to the first-floor office of the minister asked if they want tea or coffee. Instead, waiters walk in and out of his suite of offices and that of his long-time personal aide, Raghavendra Shastry, now Krishna’s advisor, with trays of south India’s celebrated filter coffee. Of course, tea is available for those who do not drink coffee, but otherwise, the aroma of Mysore coffee from the home state of the external affairs minister constantly wafts through his office.

Loyalty, often bordering on sycophancy, is ingrained in bureaucrats all over the world and South Block is no exception. So, taking the cue from the boss, many Indian Foreign Service officers at their headquarters have taken to serving south Indian filter coffee to visitors instead of tea or the good old café au lait brewed at the Indian Coffee Board’s outlet at the ministry of external affairs as its most popular beverage for many years.

The new minister’s decision to popularize south Indian filter coffee goes well beyond any commitment to coffee-growers in Coorg in his native Karnataka. Krishna, who will soon be celebrating 50 years in public life, has enough political savvy to find mileage even in south Indian filter coffee. Although he does not deal with the Islamic world or Haj, Krishna has already told some Muslim visitors to his office about the ‘Islamic’ virtues of the Karnataka beverage he is now consciously popularizing in his ministry. It is a tale that, surprisingly, Muslim leaders to whom Krishna narrated the story did not know themselves.

A good raconteur of after-dinner stories, the legend, according to Krishna, is that coffee was brought from Yemen to his home state by one Baba Budan on his way back from Haj pilgrimage. The baba settled in Karnataka’s Chandragiri Hills and grew coffee there: as a tribute, Mysoreans named the hills after the Muslim holy man following the baba’s death. But that is not all. There is a Gandhi-family twist to the story as well. When Indira Gandhi contested for the Lok Sabha from Chikmagalur in 1978, seeking her political rehabilitation after an electoral rout in the previous year, she went to Chandragiri Hills and marvelled at the beauty of the coffee plantations there.

There are other changes as well in South Block with the United Progressive Alliance returning to power. In Shastry’s room, which serves as an antechamber to the minister’s offices, at any given time, there is someone who is associated with Indian tennis and a crop of politicians, in addition to Indian envoys visiting the capital or senior MEA officials waiting to brief Krishna. Every tennis official calling on Krishna these days is commiserating with him that he had to miss — for the first time in five years — the Wimbledon opening last month.

Not since Salman Khursheed was a junior minister in South Block from 1991-96 has this columnist seen so many politicians in the MEA as in Krishna’s office last month. Pranab Mukherjee, with his numerous chairmanships of the “group of ministers”, operated mostly from his Talkatora Road residence; Yashwant Sinha is hardly a politician while Jaswant Singh, as external affairs minister, had more academics from Oxford’s Christ Church, authors from Harvard and strategists from think-tanks than politicians of any hue visiting him in South Block. But Krishna has already brought into his activities as external affairs minister a strong political streak that will undoubtedly have an impact on his decision-making. A few steps from Krishna’s office on the same floor of South Block sits Shashi Tharoor, the most media-savvy member of Manmohan Singh’s council of ministers. Because he is easily accessible to the media, Tharoor is probably the most written-about minister in the new UPA government, and he has himself added on Twitter what others have not already written or said on TV about his work as junior foreign minister.

Yet, the most heartening aspect for this columnist of Tharoor’s tenure in office, so far, appears to have escaped the attention of the entire media, probably because what the new minister of state for external affairs has not done is taken as done every time a cabinet is formed or expanded in India. Tharoor occupies a room in South Block reserved for the junior minister, but it has the same furniture, decor and carpet that was used by his predecessor.

Across the corridor, his staff of eight or so remain cooped up in a room that can comfortably seat no more than four persons. Tharoor, unlike many Indian ministers who behave as if they have the divine right to ministership, has not gone about commandeering office rooms and ousting civil servants who do the real job in most ministries.

He has decided that public money will not be squandered on refurbishing his office when there is a crying need for public funds for better things. His attitude is in such contrast to many of his cabinet colleagues, including some very senior ministers, that no one in New Delhi’s media appears to have even bothered to ask if Tharoor is using old carpets and furnishings that are still adequate and do not have to be thrown out merely because the occupant of the office has changed.

Such an un-Indian-minister-like attitude is perhaps something Tharoor has brought into his new incarnation in New Delhi from the United Nations, where he worked for 29 years. The UN offices in New York are modestly furnished, and since space is prohibitive in the Big Apple, even very senior UN officials get offices that are just functional.

His economy and avoidance of waste stand out considering that a minister of state for external affairs in the previous Manmohan Singh government, Anand Sharma, who has now been promoted as cabinet minister for commerce, had his new office in Udyog Bhawan completely renovated in record time at public cost. Not to be left behind, Jyotiraditya Scindia, the minister of state for commerce, has outdone his boss in keeping up with the image of a maharaja. Together, these two ministers of commerce have spent a fortune at a time when India’s exports, their key responsibility, is in rapid decline. But then, the same is true of the vast majority of 78 ministers in Manmohan Singh’s new team. The amount of waste on this account that could have gone into real development is, indeed, disturbing, to say the least.

No one in Indian public life can, however, meet the standards in austerity that have been set by A.K. Antony, whom Singh asked to continue as defence minister in the UPA, Mark II. Antony lives in a Lutyens’ bungalow on Krishna Menon Marg that is reserved for defence ministers, but even at the height of Delhi’s summer, when the mercury hovers around 44 degrees Celsius, air conditioners are not switched on at his house. Antony, for whom honesty is a foundation of public life, has never owned a wristwatch. His son has just completed his studies at Stanford University in California with a loan from the Canara Bank, where the defence minister’s wife has been employed for most of her adult life. This, at a time when a leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) paid in cash, upfront, in foreign currency, the entire fees for the education of his son at a university in the United Kingdom.

When Antony was in Washington on an official visit last year, the son expressed a wish to visit his father. Antony turned down the son’s request because he did not think it was appropriate for the son to share his suite at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel where the defence minister was staying, paid for by the taxpayer. When the American national security adviser, James Jones, visited him in New Delhi about a fortnight ago, Antony was under pressure to sign three defence agreements with the Pentagon. These impinge on the institutional independence of India’s armed forces, and have created an undercurrent of unease among the country’s uniformed officers. Antony stood his ground. His integrity and his firmness (bordering on the stubborn), among other things, constitute a good augury for the UPA government in its new term in office.