SHOULD our Members of Parliament get a three-fold hike in salary and allowances? The immediate response of the aam aadmi would undoubtedly be an absolute no. The cabinet last week took the plea of popular reaction-at a time when the spiralling food prices have forced people change their food habits and there is mass anger against the ruling class-to defer the salary hike for MPs. (It was later forced to accept the MPs demand.) What the MPs’ decide is being watched closely by the state legislatures and it will have a cascading effect upto the Panchayat level. The administrative expenditure will go on multiplying, pensions and allowances of all the former members will also go up, further increasing the burden on the taxpayer.
There is merit in the arguments for and against a pay hike for the parliamentarians. But the question really transcends the parameters of logic. It is more about political morality, public decency. A member of Parliament is not like a senior employee of a big company. He is respected, the public admire him because his job essentially is expected to endure sacrifice, idealism and commitment. On the call of Mahatma Gandhi hundreds of Indians boycotted foreign cloth and adopted swadeshi. On the call of Vinoba Bhave, landlords donated thousands of acres of land for Bhoodaan. Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan could get the boorish, notorious dacoits of Chambal surrender their arms and mend their ways. At the time of the Indo-Pak war, Lal Bahadur Shastri could give a call for abandoning one meal and donating lavishly to the national endeavour. And the country listened. Are there leaders today who inspire such confidence in the countrymen? One thing common to all these leaders was their sacrifice for the country. They did not milch the country.
Present day politicians only talk of their privileges. Their privileges are so wide that the nation feels anguished and cheated. Unlike in other services-government employees have to wait for the pay commission, in the private sector market is the master- nobody can stop our parliamentarians from gifting themselves a handsome pay hike coupled with other enhanced benefits. Only a few months ago a parliamentary committee decreed that the members in future will not be bogged down by the constraints of eschewing office of profit. This was a major issue a few years ago when some members were holding office of profit while remaining a member of either house. Now members can continue to do other lucrative business and also serve the parliamentary term. Does the politician consider himself as an employee when he becomes an MP?
The argument that in the absence of higher pay talented youngsters are not getting attracted to politics is not true. It is also not the case that only the rich are drawn to politics because of the poor pay for an MP. One has only to analyse the profile of our parliamentarians to realize the hollowness of these assumptions. In the absence of sufficient money, at least some are tempted to replenish their purse by corrupt means, some people argue. These are all facile, to put it very mildly. How many of our politicians are starving for want of sufficient funds? The plea that in the past only people with rich family background were drawn to politics, because they were not dependent on the salary for their livelihood is also not true if we consider the background of our parliamentarians in the last six decades. That politicians too have family responsibilities and they have to take care of their near and dear ones is fair enough.
It is possible that the makers of Indian Republic had a different view when they initially fixed the salaries and allowances for our public representatives. Remember, this is the only profession which puts no condition on qualification and no retirement age. Through the succeeding decades our parliament and legislatures were generous in enlarging their privileges, powers and special allowances that in the last Lok Sabha, the Speaker Somnath Chatterjee who was opposed to a pay hike for MPs, commented exasperatedly, that Indian Parliament is perhaps the only such institution where the MPs themselves have the privilege to raise their salaries. In fact, every Lok Sabha in the recent past has been adding to the salary and privileges of our parliamentarians. They kept the salary low and special benefits high. These are in the public domain for repeating here. One way of handling the situation is to hike the salary manifold and withdraw all the privileges and allowances. Another more radical step could be to make every elected post voluntary, without any pay, perks and privileges. Then, only the public spirited, service-minded and devoted men and women will come to politics. This will also go a long way in cleaning up public life and fighting corruption.
Some questions that defy logic remain. If our parliamentarians are so lowly paid why is it that there is such a big scramble for tickets at the time of election? Newspapers report about the astronomical sums people are willing to pay for a ticket for the Lok Sabha or state legislatures and a nomination to Rajya Sabha. Another question is do our politicians consider a membership in the legislature as a career? The members arguing for pay hike say that politics in the new age is a profession and that professionals will not get attracted if the salaries are so low. Can the parliament ever match the remuneration packages of our corporate honchos? And if the MPs’ pay is so unattractive why are the corporate bosses queuing up before party head quarters with money bags for a passage to the legislature?
These are things that a common man in whose name politics these days is being played does not understand. And do our MPs think that politics also is an employment bureau?
For the ordinary Indian, politics is the visa power to fame, privileges, notoriety and riches that he cannot otherwise aspire. The politician has a right of way-even on public road-everywhere. The citizens have to pay up, nay, grudgingly, for all the privileges that go naturally with the political class. Still the common man gets a raw deal.
This is the country where according to official estimate the average income of as many as 700 million people i.e, almost 60 per cent of the population is less than 100 rupees a day. A recent NCEAR study said the number of rich families in the country stood at 46.7 million against 41 million poor families. The state it seems has abdicated its responsibilities, contributing in the process to a growing chasm between the privileged and the poor. The condition in India today is such that, 42 per cent of our children go to sleep on an empty stomach. Forty percent of patients cannot pay for hospital treatment, and there are at least 25 million families in urban India alone and that number is growing, who are deprived of a roof over their head. Over two lakh farmers have committed suicide and a million farmers have left agriculture in recent years. This is also the India our parliamentarians represent. The bureaucrats take the cue from politicians and appropriate all privileges for themselves. In the façade of privatization, successive governments have been spending less and less on crucial social sectors like health, education, irrigation, drinking water and sanitation. It is in this context that the MPs pay hike has become controversial.
The Lok Sabha was twice adjourned by the angry members because the government was allegedly dilly-dallying on the recommendations of a parliamentary committee on pay hike. If politics is a mission, a medium of service to the nation and has to have a connect with the masses the parliamentarians should insist on working out a transparent and credible mechanism for fixing their pay and perks. Any arbitrariness will only weaken public trust.