Byline by M J Akbar: Income shall prevail
The controversy over the MPs’ pay and emoluments is misplaced. We should lead a campaign to increase the salaries of MPs, but only if we can find a way of reducing their income.
The nation should not be irritated by a few thousand rupees more in legal pay for MPs. It should be worried stiff about the crores that they make unofficially. Mortals live off a salary; MPs live on their collection.
Corruption is not limited to MPs of course. A substantial section of the elite achieves fiscal immortality through the deathless alchemy of bribery. MPs, however, have a peculiar problem that becomes a suo moto excuse for greed. Even those who are averse to bribes, or those who live frugally, need a supplementary source of hard cash, since there is a total mismatch between the compulsory costs of a complicated job and official compensation. Did you ever meet any MP who looked as if he was feeding his family, educating his children, entertaining constituents, paying for at least two homes, all on a salary of Rs 12,000? Sure, there are millions of free phone calls and hundreds of paid flights, but phone companies have not yet devised a process by which calls can substitute for lunch. The salary is a thong, not a three-piece suit. It helps them claim that they are dressed. They make up the difference between pay and lifestyle costs by accepting “donations”.
The theory behind low salaries was that MPs did public service, and therefore should not be a burden on the public exchequer. Such idealism quickly degenerated into hypocrisy.
There are exceptions. A handful of MPs, generally but not exclusively of the leftist persuasion, live within their limited means, using party resources for their political expenses. But the only MPs who can afford to fold their hands instead of stretching their palms are professionals, like lawyers, who make a multiple of their peer salary in less than a morning’s work. Given our system, perhaps the only way a legislator can remain beyond the law is by being a lawyer — or an accountant with a lawyer’s account. The rest are condemned to polite, if inventive, forms of beggary. The system works on omerta, the code of silence. Strict adherence is essential, since the code is unwritten. When a club member breaks the silence, as Mayawati did by paying tax on at least some of such donations, there is withering unease.
Our antipathy towards politicians leads us into partial error; anger at the individual may have its uses, but the true problem is the malodorous system that sustains our democracy. The private wealth available to party leaders is astonishing; what they spend, while exorbitant enough, is a small percentage of the monies available to them. There has been no serious attempt to find a solution because it is virtually impossible to legislate against a functioning fiction.
The astronomical cost of elections has moved democracy into an unreal dimension, as distant from Election Commission rules as possible. Every commissioner knows that the expense statement provided by the candidate is an utter fraud, but signs on it nevertheless: if you punish 543 elected MPs the only presence left in the august chamber will be the lonely ghost of Mahatma Gandhi. Figures differ; a candidate’s expense in a parliamentary constituency can vary from Rs 2 crores to Rs 25 crores. And if you are buying votes on a wholesale basis, as has begun to happen in some southern states, then Rs 25 crores is what you put on the table before the first gambit.
The source of election funding becomes a regular resource for the elected MP. There are two reasons why two thirds of our MPs are crorepatis: according to numbers floating on the internet, 315 out of 543. The “regular resource” is one of them. The second, and more dangerous, is that elections are becoming a rich man’s game. Those outside the charmed circle are totally intimidated by the minimum requirement; and if they cannot raise that much, they cannot be credible candidates in any case. You cannot be elected without the support of the poor, but the Lok Sabha is no longer a place for the poor. It is unsurprising that the average worth of an MP has risen from around Rs 1.86 crores to Rs 5.33 crores.
What does it matter, then, whether an MP gets Rs 12,000 or Rs 60,000? At the top of this elite institution is the super elite of leaders, some of whom use private planes far more often than regular airlines. They don’t even bother to use the free airline tickets at their disposal.
No salary can ever pay for the lifestyle to which an Indian politician has become accustomed. The need is high enough, and when you top it up with greed, the upper limit of the cash inflow becomes a measure of individual, or ministerial, ability.
Heaven knows if we shall see any reform, but we can start with a refurbishment. We can remove the nation’s avowed motto, truth shall win, from Parliament.
On a more sombre note: what will be the outcome of such incomes?