‘It’s Time to Stop These Big Fat Political Weddings’

Former bureaucrat E.A.S. Sarma is deeply critical of ministers, who by celebrating lavish weddings, are failing to set an example for the people at a time when money is hard to come by.

E.A.S. Sarma at an event for children in Vishakhapatnam. Credit: Facebook

E.A.S. Sarma at an event for children in Vishakhapatnam. Credit: Facebook

Former secretary of economic affairs, E.A.S. Sarma, has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi to protest against the ostentatious display of wealth by several BJP union ministers and members for weddings in their families. Sarma, who is known for commenting on the fallacies of the Indian democratic system – both during service and after retirement – demanded an investigation into the matter at a time when the nation is standing in queues to withdraw paltry sums owing to demonetisation. Sarma wondered why there existed a disparity of rules for these“super citizens” and ordinary citizens and asked that the expenditures of Nitin Gadkari, Mahesh Sharma and Karnataka leader, G. Janardhana Reddy be investigated.

A post-graduate in nuclear physics from Andhra University and in public administration from Harvard University, with a doctorate from IIT-Delhi, Sarma had quit the finance ministry in 2000 following differences with the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government over public policy issues. Sarma had also written to the director of the enforcement directorate, Karnal Singh, seeking an investigation into its expenditure earlier.

He spoke to The Wire about his angst and how and why he feels filing tax returns or paying by cheque alone does not entitle a person to spend so lavishly in these difficult times.

Incidentally, all the leaders named by Sarma have huge disclosed incomes against their names. As per the declaration of assets made by Gadkari when contesting the 2014 Lok Sabha elections from Nagpur, he had movable and fixed property worth nearly Rs 4.65 crore to his name.

Similarly, the affidavit filed by union culture minister, Mahesh Sharma while contesting the Lok Sabha elections from Gautam Buddh Nagar in Uttar Pradesh, had revealed that he had assets running into several crores. Sharma who was also the chairman of the Kailash Group of Hospitals and gave up the post when he joined the Union ministry, had as a Union Minister submitted that he possessed assets worth over Rs 18 crores in his own name.

As for Karnataka politician and mining baron, G. Janardhana Reddy, his net worth was nearly Rs 5,000 crore in 2011 when he was arrested by the CBI for illegal mining and corruption.

Excerpts from the interview:

You have written strongly worded letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and ED director Karnal Singh seeking action against BJP bigwigs for conducting ostentatious weddings of their kin. Has there been any response to your letters?

No, I just sent the letter to the prime minister this afternoon. I do not expect any response. The idea is that people should know that when on the one hand, due to demonetisation, people are standing in queues, marriages are being broken or postponed – on the other said these leaders like G. Janardhan Reddy, Mahesh Sharma and even Bandaru Dattatreya are celebrating the marriages of their children very lavishly.

So the prime minister can say that you stand in a queue, uphold my great campaign against black money and all that, and on the other hand, his own ministers conduct themselves like this. I think it is very, very sad.

When Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had levelled similar charges, Sharma had claimed that all the payments made by him were through cheques and that he was an honest tax payer who paid from his accounts for his son’s wedding. Then how is his spending at the wedding not justified?

But can you celebrate a wedding as lavishly? Have you seen the videos of his son’s wedding? It was a very lavish affair. Can you perform a marriage without paying cash? To some people, you will have to pay cash. You cannot pay everyone by cheque, credit cards and all that. And my question is that when the government is going eloquent on black money, it should at least call for an enquiry.

Income tax department says Janardhana Reddy spent only Rs 25 crore, who will believe it?

Also read: CPI Leader D. Raja Questions Modi Government’s Commitment To Fighting Corruption

In case of Dr Sharma, is bracketing him with Reddy justified since he, his wife, and both his children are practising doctors. The family owns the Kailash Group of Hospitals. So as a person who pays his tax, does he not have a right to enjoy his money?

No. I don’t agree with that, especially when the prime minister is exhorting people to stand in queues and uphold what is known as conspicuous consumption. There must be austerity, there must be frugality and as a cabinet member also, as a symbolic thing, there should abjure any form of lavishness.

I don’t agree that somebody should enjoy his money. I do not believe that cash was not used. How did they get the cash for all this? It is not a question of a doctor or all that, it is about cash.

Today, I cannot draw money from my own account without standing in a long queue. I went for a cremation of a cousin of mine and as I did not have cash, I had to stand in a long queue and all that I managed to withdraw was Rs 2,000. So my blood boils when these fellows celebrate the marriages of their kin with so ostentatiously.

In fact, I have asked the revenue secretary in a different context to look into every lavish wedding all across the country after November 8. As for these ministers, the local income tax officers are all honoured guests so they do not question such lavish spending. They are harassing and raiding small jewellers and traders, why can’t you raid these fellows? How can they celebrate weddings in such a garish way?

Is it more of a moral and ethical issue then?

No, it is more than that. Reddy said he mortgaged his Singapore properties. What are those Singapore properties? And who is paying for the 50 chartered flights for Gadkari’s daughter’s wedding (The charge has since been denied by Gadkari’s office). His name had also cropped up in the luxury cruise incident in Europe  and he also allegedly violated the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act when he was a legislator in Maharashtra. I had lodged complaints with the Central Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement Directorate but they did not act on it. There is also a context in which I am stating this. Because they have not acted on my previous letters.

Also read: Politicians Are at the Top of the Black Money Ladder; It Is Time to Bring Them Down

But is bracketing every person in the same group right?

I don’t accept this. As a government, they should send out a message of austerity. I saw the television pictures of Sharma’s son’s wedding. These things are all very nice to defend. But members of a government which is trying to push people into the queues, in which several people have died, have no moral ground to do this.

Now Modi says this is the last queue because some people died. I stood in the queues six times. I could have spoken to someone but decided not to because I wanted to experience it.

Is presuming anyone guilty beforehand right?

There is no question of presuming here. The burden is on the government, on Modi and he should have sent out a message that there should be no lavish weddings as I have taken up this wonderful campaign; let’s not get chartered flight and hotels, lets set an example before the country then the common man will trust us.

There is no question of saying I am paying by cash, so I can spend this. But I can challenge people that there is no such lavish wedding without cash unless contractors are paying on their behalf.