Sunday, March 06, 2011

Politicians Wasting Parliament (and the taxpayer's) Time: Reposted

As part of the ongoing process of salvaging some of my old blog posts from, I found one that seems particularly apt given the political drama/farce once again unfolding in India.  Sadly enough, this post was written in 2001, entire decade ago which makes it even more depressing!

A bit of context: I moved back to India in 1995 after living and working abroad and thus got my first taste of Delhi as a weird mix of a phoren-return (a rarity in those days), a UP-ite and having never lived in the capital. Because of family, friends and work, I got to see the workings of that city and how much of it is based on lies. Media, politicians, business, activists all work hand-in-glove no matter what image they present to the aam-aadmi.  The post below was a combination of disgust at what I observed as well as a belief I still hold: that truth shall set us free, that the young people of India are its future, and things can be changed.  I repost this not to depress the readers but more as a reminder of how far we still have to go:

2001: Most days when you switch on the TV, you find politicians bickering away at each other. So you can imagine my surprise when I found politicians of various parties in complete harmony, agreeing with each other, supporting each other's arguments, presenting a picture of complete bonhomie. 

Of course, if you watch DD's broadcast of parliamentary proceedings (which I do, as a particularly nasty example of reality TV), you would know that such bonhomie isn't quite extraordinary. Seconds after staging dharnas, storming the wells, and screaming themselves hoarse, and moments before the cameras are switched off, the opposition and treasury benches have been spotted backslapping like the best of friends. The surprise, therefore, wasn't that they were all "langotiya yaars" beyond the camera lights, but that they were willing to show it on international and national television.

I suppose, the issue at hand has to held responsible for such a public demonstration of affection. You see, the politicians on TV were all justifying the need for voting a huge pay increase for themselves. And that, we all know, is an issue that cuts across party-lines and unites our political classes ever so much better than a national crisis or calamity.

"We get paid Rs. 4,000 a month," said one MP, "and we are required to maintain two homes, one in the capital and the other in our constituency." This was a particularly favoured explanation for the MP pay increase. Even the younger politicians, ranging from Arun Jaitley to Omar Abdullah came up with the facetious reasoning that "improved pay packages will make MPs more honest." On one show, Renuka Chowdhary, the party-hopping fireball explained that "MPs should be paid at least as much as a Joint Secretary. After all, our children need to go to school too." Touching logic, if only it held water. For three basic reasons: 
  • one, because the official pay package forms a small part of the remunerations, legal and illegal, that MPs receive; 
  • two, because greed has no limit and raising the pay package even up to 12,000 will do little to support the lifestyles adopted by many of our MPs; 
  • and three, because a Joint Secretary is actually required to do some work for the benefit of the nation and people, which MPs never do.
Starting with the first point, the Government of India foots the bills for MPs transport, housing, telephone and other utilities. Party coffers assist with other perks. The government also provides each MP with funds to develop their constituencies, very little of which actually reaches the people it is intended for. Finally, there are a number of other "donations" that MPs receive from private and corporate sources. In ten years of being the Chief Minister of Bihar (a proxy one for some of that time and an MP of the Lok Sabha as well), Laloo Prasad Yadav has amassed wealth that confounds the most ambitious among us. This champion of the "down-trodden" declares that property worth crores of rupees is "inherited" from his ancestors (yes, the very same poverty-stricken ones who suffered for the proverbial do bigha zameen). Ironically enough, Laloo's property today outstrips many folds that of the largest upper-caste zamindarsin the same state.

Even a better case in point is that of Phoolan Devi, who was killed in the very same week as my father retired after a long career with the central government. Her property - self-acquired - is estimated in crores, and all of it has been acquired in the last ten years of her political adventure. Meanwhile, my father - after forty years of honest, honourable, and sometimes dangerous, service to the nation - has little but personal pride to show for his efforts. And lest we forget the argument offered by our MPs, my father earned more money - per month - than the MPs.
Which brings us to the second point: will a three-fold increase in pay really make MPs honest? Living in Delhi has been a real education for me. And the lessons have been simple: most politicians live life King-size, and all checks and balances be damned. Starting with flashy cars, satellite phones, and watches worth a few lakh of rupees, there is hardly an MP who can be said to represent the poorest of the poor in this country. Lavish weddings, iftaar parties and "party meetings" bely the MPs' current claim that they are short of cash. While on the topic, let us not forget the foreign holidays that are paid for by the taxpayer's money (the same taxpayer who - in many cases - cannot afford monthly trips from Delhi to Bhatinda).

Experience shows that larger pay packets do not prevent greed. If that were the case, we would live in a highly simplified, moral utopia. Past fifty years of history show that politicians who cannot be corrupted - ie, Lal Bahadur Shastri, - manage to avoid greed, despite having unlimited riches within their grasp. Others - and the Nehru-Gandhi family is a good example - are corrupted to such a level that no amount of wealth (or tragedy) can sate that ever-burning need for more. After all, as the Hindi proverb says, once the lion tastes human blood, it turns into a man-eater. And that is exactly what has happened to our political classes: easy black money has spurred them on to greater heights of greed and corruption.

Now we get to the final point: what is it that our MPs do for us that we need to pay them more out of the tax payer's pocket? There has been an argument made in the past that India works despite its government. In the past half-decade, and with the help of liberalization, this statement has travelled far toward becoming a fact. India is now slowly moving towards a stage where the government is becoming increasingly superfluous in the daily lives of most of its citizens.

And in part, the politicians themselves are to blame. The bulk of this year's budget session was devoted to clamours of resignation by the opposition instead of informed, rational discussion of the budget proposals. The budget was finally passed with only the most cursory of discussions. During that session, the treasury benches had protested the disruption of parliamentary proceedings.

The current parliamentary session has again seen disruptions of parliamentary proceedings, where the house has been adjourned for hours on end and sometimes, even till the next day. This time, the treasury benches are carrying out the disruptions while the opposition has been protesting such "unparliamentary" behaviour.
And just for the taxpayers' information: each day of the parliament session costs the country approximately 2 crore rupees! And the new proposal for MPs' salary hike will cost the nation approximately 23 crores more every year. The question before the nation is simple: Should we pay these MPs more to stage high cost, low quality tamashas and nautankis?

There is one possible solution: For each day that the parliament is disrupted, the disruptive MPs must be made to pay a fine. After all, if each working day of a parliament session costs 2 crores, it is easy enough to calculate the cost of each wasted minute. And let us fine the party (since these disruptions are pre-planned and sanctioned by the party chiefs) not the individual members.

So if a party's members rush into the well and hold up proceedings for ten minutes, let the responsible party foot the bill for those ten minutes. If the parliament is forced into adjournment by disruptions, let the party foot the bill for the entire day. At the end of the session, let the collected money from these fines go back to the tax-payer. This does not mean handing it back to the exchequer, or development agencies that do little, or even NGOs who may be manipulated by their governmental links. Instead, let the income from this "disruption" fine go into providing across the board income tax relief.

Let our MPs put such a proposal into practice first. Then, perhaps, we can talk about giving them pay raises.

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