Monday, June 25, 2012

Should MPs be exploiting the system? Respect must be earned, not forced

Our headline preoccupations are actually surface trifles – oneupmanship over presidential candidates, corruption cases, one lot holding up Sonia Gandhi as goddess while another lot bows to Mamata Bannerjee as sovereign, and so on. The reality behind the surface is that our democracy is being vandalised by its very beneficiaries, the MPs and the MLAs. They have become more self-serving than at any time since elections began.

In the early days their selfishness was limited to getting increased salary and allowances. Compared to what was to come, those were days of innocence. Even then, perceptive leaders were able to sense a dangerous trend. Among them was Nanaji Deshmukh, a veteran nationalist whose mind soared above the RSS with which he was identified.

In 2005 he wrote an open letter to express his anguish over MPs voting themselves yet another salary increase. He was a member of the Rajya Sabha, yet he wrote: “Much of the privileges and perquisites of MPs, former MPs, and former PMs look more like privy purses and are unconcerned with any public purpose”. He noted that salaries of MPs had gone up 90 times in 50 years, “a mockery of democracy”.

Nanaji Deshmukh would be left without words to describe the highway robbery that's happening today. In something of a national scandal, Air-India recently worked out a “high quality handling protocol” for MPs. It stipulated procedures no one would have believed possible: Air-India should depute staff to facilitate an MP's check-in, an attendant should take his hand-carry bag into the aircraft, cabin crew should constantly inquire about his comforts, the captain himself should come and greet him and, at the arrival airport, the duty manager should receive the MP.

Adding insult to injury, the protocol was moved when Air-India was sick and haemorrhaging, pilots were on strike, losses were running into several crores a day. But MPs, guardians of the country and its assets, could only think of how to secure more privileges for themselves free of cost. The don't-care attitude was voiced by the don't-care aviation minister himself. Ajit Singh justified the protocol by declaring: “We are just saying give them due respect”.

To MPs of this kind, what respect is due? To MPs who use diplomatic passports to smuggle Indians to Canada, MPs who take bribes to raise questions in Parliament, MPs who get elected while they are lodged in jail cells, what respect is due? Let's not hear insipid arguments like, all MPs are not bad. Of course they are not. But all MPs are responsible when Parliament is stalled for every day of an entire session, and when instrumentalities like House Committees are used to unilaterally secure privileges at citizens' cost.

A Lok Sabha House Committee has now asked for a protocol of privileges in Delhi Metro: special ticket counters, staff to guide MPs to their seats, etc. MPs have also demanded higher positions in the Warrant of Procedure at public functions, lifting from 21st to 17th position in the gradation of VIPs and of course Lal batti on top of their cars. Mercifully, they have not asked for all traffic to halt when they are on the road. Well, not yet.

These VIPs (Very Irregular Persons) actually rob the country in addition to squeezing it. MPs have voted themselves the privilege of 1.5 lakh free telephone calls a year. Many exceed this and don't pay. There are sitting MPs who owe 9 lakhs and 3 lakhs rupees each. But no action can be taken against them because MPs have provided to themselves “rules of immunity”. So the tax-paying citizen must bear the cost. What respect is due to such MPs?

The final straw comes from UP Assembly. The MLAs there have moved for special privileges for those members who are in jail: A-Class status, phones inside the cells, office facilities, incarceration in their home constituencies. Their excuse is a variation on Ajit Singh's theme: Respect due to public servants. No country is governed by a more shameless class.