PAISA OVER PARLIAMENT

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“If I were a man of money, I would be in a different profession.” This was French President Nicolas Sarkozy in a TV interview last month on allegations of being too close to the high life and the wealthy. The jury is still out on charges of illegal political donations that have beset the French ruling establishment in what is now called the Bettencourt affair, but here at least was a ruling politician talking the talk about the minimum expected normative ethics in public life. In contrast, the vast majority of our politicians in the past week seem to be giving the impression that they are only in this profession to make money.

The irony is that, in principle, there should be nothing wrong in increasing salaries for parliamentarians, commensurate with other economic indicators – just as salaries for civil servants have been increased under the Sixth Pay Commission.

The problem has been that much of educated India sees the political class as a venal cancer, only interested in ingratiating itself to the fruits of power. It was therefore even more important for MPs to conduct the debate with decorum and reason and to be mindful about the public imagery of them lining their own pockets with the public’s money.

Instead, our politicians have done everything possible to enhance the impression of money-seeking profiteers. What could have been a rational argument to make has descended into trade union-style sloganeering and the cussed bargaining over not getting a rupee less than a Union Government Secretary has only strengthened the clichéd imagery of the venal politician in the public mind.

Both Lalu and Mulayam have been coming to terms with their shrinking political space. In that context, it is tempting to see Lalu’s take as ‘Senior PM’ and Mulayam’s as ‘PM’ in the pantomime of the mock Parliament that was enacted on Friday as a telling Freudian slip.

Their grandstanding may be good for returning delusions of grandeur within their own little circles but Lok Sabha MPs should realise that they have only shot themselves in the foot by following the lead of the Yadav chieftains on this issue.

Irrespective of all else, in the public eye, it is clear what has happened: petulant MPs hold up Parliament for two days and the government gives them an even higher pay rise. Did they even think of pursuing such tactics collectively on issues that really matter to the voters – price rise, farmers suicides, the mess in the PDS system.

In contrast, the soldiers in the defence services have been crying themselves hoarse about anomalies in the Sixth Pay Commission and what we have is the regular government response of committee upon committee. One example: earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that there were mistakes in the manner in which the salaries for armed forces officers was calculated way back in 1986 – the rank pay was left out – under the Fourth Pay Commission.

This meant that they continued to get less than their due ever since and the Court ordered that arrears should now be paid. What was the government’s response: a denial and a review petition before to the Court. Is it not fair enough to ask then that there are different standards for the politicians and different standards for the rest of India, including its soldiers?

Be that as it may, let us get back to what else could the MPs have done? First, they could easily have pre-empted much of the criticism that they are paying themselves by agreeing that the pay-hike would not be for this Lok Sabha but the next one.

This is exactly what Bill Clinton did in 1999 when he signed the first pay hike for an American President since 1969; except that it was effective from 2001 and George W. Bush was the beneficiary. Secondly, they could have agreed to the suggestion for an independent Ombudsman, like in the British Parliament, to monitor their expenses. Most people don’t have a problem with raising MPs’ basic pay – the problem is with their allowances.

These may be legitimate requirements but why can’t they be transparent and accounted for online for the public. Thirdly, MPs’ salaries should be regulated by a Pay Commission-like body, like the rest of the arms of the state.

One of the funny off-record comments reported last week was that the government was worried about Lalu stealing its credit for raising MPs’ salaries – an issue with cross-party support. If this is true then this government’s political antennae are truly off-signal. If anything, we need a gesture that would assuage public opinion. Much is made of Manmohan Singh’s probity and decency. Can he at least talk the talk on this one? If he does talk at all.