By Rajeev Gowda
Politics is expensive. MPs need a hike to stay afloat — and honest
Recently, when Members of Parliament gave themselves a pay hike, there was a predictable howl of outrage across the country. This fury was not directed at the antics of some MPs led by the gimmick-prone Lalu Yadav, who denigrated the institution by conducting a mock parliament after hours in the Lok Sabha chamber. Instead commentators vented their ire on the magnitude of increase in salary and perquisites, and predictably missed the larger, more important issues.
Let us consider the categories of criticism: That the salary hike, from Rs. 16,000 to Rs. 50,000, and increase in perquisites is obscene. That given the decline in days when parliament did its designated work, a raise is unjustifiable. That parliament is filled with crorepatis so why should any MP need a raise at all. That representatives should not earn multiples of the average per capita income of their constituents. Etc., etc.
If these aren’t the real issues what are? Start by considering the roles and expectations of an MP. Those go substantially beyond passing legislation or holding governments to account through searching questions and aggressive opposition. MPs perform multifaceted roles, partly by choice, partly because voters expect them to.
MPs serve as quasi-CEOs of their constituencies. They are expected to bring home projects and trigger development. The MPLADS funds that each MP gets is a pittance when compared to the costs of locally-relevant projects that constituents demand. MPs are expected to address voters’ grievances, from problems with the bureaucracy to getting voters college seats and jobs. They are often asked to contribute hard cash for various functions or help out with acts of charity. And MPs are expected to be super- knowledgeable about the issues of the day.
If you were to spend a day with an MP, you will see the enormous costs of just keeping the show running. Visitors expect to be provided tea-coffee or meals. Staffers have to be on hand to handle the phone calls to be made and letters to be typed. Going around the constituency is a gas guzzling drain on resources. And then there’s the need to organize political meetings to stay alive politically.
The salary hike barely covers the real costs of being an MP in modern India. Any MP who remains honest is well on his way to becoming insolvent. Indeed, some years ago, the professor-turned minister Yogendra Alagh stated that his wife advised him to reject another term because their budget could not cope with the expenses of providing tea-coffee to visitors. Similarly, PM Manmohan Singh may have ushered in prosperity for India but clearly not for himself. His assets accumulated over a life time are easily matched by MBAs before they turn 30.
When we focus on the crorepatis and not the Alaghs and Manmohans, we implicitly concede that there is no space in parliament for honest politicians. When we criticize salaries and perks that in some small measure address the costs of being a representative, we are condemning MPs to make compromises just to do their job. Such arguments ensure that people of integrity will be pushed out of political leadership. Is that what our commentariat really wants?
The larger issue is about political careers. MPs are the lucky ones who actually get an income and perks to perform their roles. Half of them will not get reelected, yet will need to stay politically active without salary or power. For democracy to flourish there needs to be intense competition to become an MP. In India, incumbents and challengers are both expected to perform many of the same roles. Given our huge population, it is a costly, full-time job to keep in touch with voters, to mobilize politically, to stay active in the party, etc. And if one succeeds in getting a ticket, the costs of conducting an election campaign dwarf the costs of being a representative.
Becoming a politician, then, is a highly risky endeavor, career-wise. The costs are already stacked against people of honesty and integrity. The carping by the chatterati only makes the situation worse. We cannot run a representative democracy without elected representatives. We need to focus on finding ways to improve their quality. We need to attract people with vision, policy knowledge, diverse capabilities, and integrity to politics.
There are ways out: In Singapore elected representatives are paid salaries pegged to those earned by top executives in the private sector. In the USA, representatives are provided with substantial staff and support in addition to decent salaries. Adopting similar measures here, and cleaning up political contributions, will dramatically change the quality of parliament’s members and their performance. Unless we focus on such larger issues, the flood of media criticism of MPs’ pay hikes only guarantees that we will remain the world’s largest hypocrisy.
Professor Gowda is chairperson, Centre for Public Policy, IIM Bangalore.
(As Published in Outlook India on August, 27th 2010)