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Wages of Democracy

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)

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5 Comments on Wages of Democracy

  1. Kiran Varanasi // September 20, 2010 at 2:47 pm // Reply

    Fairly agree to whatever has been written… But I think the Article assumes following things

    1) Current lot of politicans will become honest with the salary rise. These people need ‘Khokas’…Not even ‘Peetis’ and proposed salary hike is still some ‘Chillar’. So there is no way Corruption will decrease.
    2) Many good people dont join politics becasue of Pay problem. There should be some kind of statiscs to support such implicit views.

  2. Totally valid argument.

    The only ‘problem’ that we face is the benchmark set by MK Gandhi.

    Renunciation, atleast on the exterior is still the image sought by most aspiring politicians.

    The society, unlike US or Singapore, still does not accept that the Gandhian model is no longer motivating enough for persons entering politics.
    A career politician who demands a salary will be looked down upon, wheras another who keeps up the appearance of Khadi while being corrupt to the core is acceptable.

  3. The comments dont work here

  4. Anyway.. my earlier comment which got deleted was

    The ‘problem’ is that indian society still equates a political leader or what he/she represents with Gandhi.
    According to that image, it is impossible to be compensated financially for being a better politician.
    Supposedly the political leader’s only thought should be welfare of the masses he/she leads.

    To keep up this appearance, our leaders wear Khadi but are involved in scams from fodder 3G. An open transaparent compensation model is laughed at and is a subject of hypocritical protests.

  5. No problem with pay hikes. Sure they should be paid well, at par as you say with top executives. However like every profession they should be accountable. Lots of pay and income sources (formal and informal) is something a democracy can ill afford. But it could do with some accountability – how about quarterly appraisals and credibility checks, how about developing a competency framework and a succession plan and how about “pink-slips” if you’re not up to it. Why shouldn’t the political executives be accountable in the same measure as their corporate counterparts.
    Nobody will ultimately answer for the Rs. 70,000 crore fiasco at CWG,That’s because we don’t demand accountability, there is really no process. RTI activists get bullets more good measure for doing that. In the process, no right thinking young or experienced person will ever join mainstream politics. That, according to me is appalling hypocrisy.

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