New Delhi - Oh, so awkward.
There was Suresh Taware, first-time member of parliament for Bhiwandi, an industrial area north of Mumbai, all settled into his business class seat on an Air India flight from Delhi to Mumbai on Monday. Drink, paper, feet up - all good.
And then, moments before take off, who should get on, and walk right past him to her own seat in economy class, but Sonia Gandhi, chairwoman of the Indian National Congress, head of India's government, mother of the nation.
The very woman who has been appealing to the members of her government to exercise the greatest possible austerity, as the country faces up to a crippling drought.
Mr. Taware had the sense to hastily head back and greet Ms. Gandhi with a deep namaskar greeting, and then insist that a no-doubt bemused older gentleman in economy take his front row seat, while he shuffled back to steerage himself. "Soniaji has set an example and I shall travel only economy in future," he told the Times News Network.
The next day Ms. Gandhi's son Rahul, a Congress member of parliament, went one better, and travelled the equivalent of economy class on a train from the capital up to Ludhiana in the Punjab - on a ticket that cost the Indian taxpayer $11. (He eschewed the $19 executive class fare.) The Indian press and public are having a bit of a gleeful time with this austerity campaign. First, Ms. Gandhi suggested a 20 per cent voluntary salary cut for all her members of parliament and party workers, with the balance to be donated to drought relief. (Monsoon rains are 40 per cent lower than normal in parts of the country, and there are huge swaths of many north Indian states where poor farmers have been unable to sow any crop at all.) No one, of course, wanted to be the staffer who declined to make the donation.
Then the party went after travel fees, which an audit revealed was swallowing as much as 75 per cent of the budget in many ministries. No more business-class flights, and no more five-star hotels - in fact, no more international junkets unless absolutely necessary, Ms. Gandhi said.
Days later, it was revealed that two of the party's hot-shot ministers were in fact living in five-star hotels in New Delhi, and had been for months, while their official residences were under renovation. One was Shashi Tharoor, one of the most intriguing characters in the new government: now Minister of State for External Affairs, he is a former United Nations undersecretary-general, an author and a human-rights activist. He's also erudite, a global sort of thinker, a hit on the party circuit, and a devotee of the micro-blogging service Twitter, on which he is one of India's most-followed people. He used the site to point out that he was paying his own hotel bills (his suite was reported to cost $1,000 a night) and would vastly prefer to be in his residence, if it was habitable.
True, many of the colonial-era mansions that now serve as ministerial residences are a bit crumbly, but then, the average Indian could also be forgiven for wondering just who defines "habitable."
Wednesday's Indian Express revealed that incoming cabinet ministers have requested such humble repairs as granite windowsills, Spanish wall tile and Italian marble bathrooms in their offices.
Now Mr. Tharoor is facing possible party discipline, after a Twitter pal asked if he would be flying economy in future, and he replied. "Absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows." Some things, apparently, are not to be mocked.
As a whole, the austerity drive has won Congress as much ridicule as it has affection, and mostly served to highlight the extraordinary gulf between what the political class assumes as the bare necessities, and the way the aam admi , the "common person" in Hindi, who is the focus of all Congress's election sloganeering, actually lives.