Saturday, August 21, 2010

Why greed is endless

There are no outstanding parliamentarians in India, but there is an Outstanding Parliamentarian Award, duly conferred by the President upon a handpicked MP. At last week’s award ceremony, Vice President Hamid Ansari spoke a few honest words. Lung power had replaced oratorical skills, he said, and discussions were drowned in noise and disruption. “It detracts from the dignity of Parliament and invites public scorn”.

This body of men and women whom the public of India scorns has now given unto themselves a three-fold increase in salary and allowances. They brayed for more: a five-fold increase. To describe them in English as a shameless lot will not bring out their despicableness in full. The Hindi term is slightly better: Besharam log.

It is so typical of the political class that Lalu Prasad Yadav should have been the most animated speaker demanding the pay hike. This is a man who not only got embroiled in serial misappropriation cases during his chief ministership in Bihar; he allowed kidnapping, especially of well-to-do doctors, to become the most paying industry in his state. He escaped from punishment only by bargaining with an amoral Congress. Last March, for example, he declared that he would not withdraw support from the Manmohan Singh Government over the Women’s Bill. As if on cue, the CBI took measures to neutralise a pending corruption case against him.

Whether the man is punished or allowed to escape, the people of this country have formed a clear opinion that he plundered everything he came across in his days of power. Why would such a man insist so loudly on a big pay increase? It must have something to do with the attitude of mind politicians develop after several years of looting and grabbing with immunity. When you can do such things and still get elected as a patriot, then you develop special complexes. You feel that you are elected because people admire even the way you plunder. Then plundering becomes an end in itself, a status symbol, a sign of your greatness. Once you are used to getting everything for nothing, there is no end to what you want. Greed feeds on itself.

More pathetic was the argument proferred by Commerce Minister Anand Sharma, another vociferous supporter of the pay increase. He said a substantial hike would attract a better quality of persons to politics. So puerile was this argument that the usually genteel Manmohan Singh had to put him down by asking him to be brief.

No salary is going to attract a “better quality” of citizens if Parliament remains a mockery of the system where members take bribe for raising questions, and use diplomatic passports to smuggle a lady or two to Canada. As many as 120 MPs out of 543 in the 2004 Lok Sabha had criminal cases against them, according to the Association for Democratic Reform. Former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda today goes to Parliament from his cell in Tihar Jail. That he will now get a triple salary increase is an insult to the people of India.

This kind of situation will not change as long as the politicians have the power to form their own rules. That is what Andre Marlaux called “politicians’ politics” as distinct from “people’s politics”. What we need is, first, outside mechanisms like an independent Pay Commission to take decisions on pay and allowances and, secondly, mandatory termination of membership when criminal misconduct is proved. The money-for-questions MPs were only admonished, so there are perhaps others who still do it.

What is required is not an increase in the emoluments of MPs, but something the other way round. When MPs cause disorder and force the House to be adjourned, let them refund their new daily allowance of Rs 2000. (Or is it 10,000? Perhaps 20,000 a day?). Hit them where it hurts, then even Lalu Prasad may behave like a good citizen.