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Commentary/Vir Sanghvi

For god's sake act like a humble farmer, if you are one!

Dear prime minister,

A few weeks ago, you were quoted as telling a group of visitors that you had become prime minister by accident. Your friends say that when you are particularly exasperated by the pressures of running this omnibus coalition, you sigh, ''I never wanted this job; I would happily go back to Bangalore."

Ten years ago when we first met, you told me that you would one day become the Karnataka chief minister. I was -- dare I say it? -- a little sceptical, but could not help being impressed by your quiet confidence. In the event, you did become chief minister -- though perhaps it was a little behind your own schedule -- and from all accounts, you did as well as, if not better than, your predecessors.

A decade ago, you struck me as being sincere in your simplicity, and everything you did in your 10 months in Race Course road has served to confirm that impression. You may be no Jawaharlal Nehru, but you have done better than anybody expected. And most of the country sees you as a straightforward chap, who is doing his best to handle the job he never expected to get.

Over the last month, however, an opportunity has arisen to go beyond the limited success you have enjoyed so far. The disarray in the Congress and the euphoria created by P Chidambaram's budget have at last given you room to manoeuvre. You now have more goodwill than ever before. With that goodwill has come a chance to do something you will be remembered for.

This is a crucial moment in any prime minister's career. Some people will suggest that you use this new strength to launch policy initiatives. Personally, I don't agree with that prescription. Given the nature of your coalition, few meaningful measures can be taken. And you seem too sensible a person to fall back on such stunts as a war with Pakistan or more reservation for 'weaker sections.'

But prime minister, nobody can stop you from being yourself. And there, I suggest, lies your greatest opportunity.

You keep telling us that you are a poor farmer and proud of it. Well, for god's sake, act like one then! What I have in mind is this: dismantle the imperial prime ministership. Throw away its regal trappings. Stop trying to impress us with your motorcade, your bungalows, your security, and your chartered jumbo jets.

Be yourself.

Let's take the small matter of the prime minister's house first. During Indira Gandhi's days, this was a modest complex with two small bungalows. One for her family and one for office. Rajiv moved to Race Course road and, though his securitymen insisted on blocking off the street, followed his mother's policy. He lived in number five, to which no political people were ever invited, and received official visitors at number seven.

Then came Narasimha Rao, a widower with grown-up children, who had till then lived on his own in New Delhi. You might think that he had no need for two separate bungalows. No way. The first thing he did was to take over yet another bungalow -- number three.

So you had a bizarre situation in which Rao lived all alone at number three and received Chandra Swami and N K Sharma there. His sons took over number five and entertained gentlemen with suitcases. Official visitors were directed to number seven.

I am sure prime minister, that your grown-up children have no need for suitcases. And nobody needs three bungalows, least of all a poor farmer. So give up number three forthwith. Evict your own sons from number five -- they are old enough to find accommodation of their own. And clear number seven of all chamhcas.

That is step one. Step two has to do with the absurd trapping of power that are forced on you in the name of security.

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