City City Bang Bang, Columns

Increase pay, decrease power

It requires a special kind of cheek made out of toughened hide. For our Members of Parliament to demand a pay hike (not just any old pay hike but one of a jaw dropping and mind bending scale) after years of abject non-performance makes the meaning of the word ‘parliamentary’ cruelly ironic. And as various analyses, including one in this newspaper, have shown, they were not doing too badly even today when we calculate their gross emoluments, taking into account the monetary value of all the perks they receive. Add to this the growing proportion of crorepatis in the House and the case for a salary hike begins to look very dodgy indeed.

Perhaps there is another way of seeing this. When this proposed move is evaluated with respect to what is happening today, it is easy to get outraged and start shouting like a television news anchor. But it is more important to see it as part of a longer-term process that brings politics into the realms of a legitimate profession open to all. For too long, by cloaking politics in the by-now utterly bogus language of idealism, we have allowed it to be populated for most part by people who have little interest in the people they represent, preferring to look after themselves and the narrow interest group they watch out for. The idealists have been squeezed out by the powerful, and the low income acts as a natural barrier for all but those who don’t need salaries because they make money in other ways. The people who represent us today may not start performing better because of higher salaries, but we may be able to attract a different set of people to the field of politics over a period of time as a result of providing some financial security.

Of course, the act of increasing salaries by itself is meaningless unless it is part of a larger movement one that moves politics from the world of informal power into one of transparent performance. In earlier times, politicians and bureaucrats traded money for power, material comfort for privileges, and performance for entitlement. Over a period of time the system has grown into an enmeshed network that trades formal and informal power for influence as well as material gain. Any politician, however minor, feels emboldened to sport a siren on his car, no MLA worth his salt will pay toll at a booth, and even a corporator’s nephew is able to order the local police around. MPs think nothing of hanging on to their accommodation years after they are entitled to it, secure in the knowledge that their status is effective immunity against any serious action. And these are the more cosmetic applications of this informal power. It gets used to land jobs, influence business deals, work out real estate fiddles and in many other ways of generating illicit wealth. It is a fine web of reciprocity and accommodation that cuts across party lines. It subverts the idea of governance and locates decision-making in the murky subterranean space of deal-making and mutual benefit.

The truth is that the current system is a self-sustaining one, with little in it that promises change. The internal party mechanisms seeking to enforce discipline have all got compromised and are governed largely by expediency. Nothing about the behaviour of its own members is capable of genuinely shocking any party, and thus systemically, there is little hope of change originating here. The only disciplinary action parties take is when a leader goes public with his or her criticism of its leaders, and that too is done half-heartedly and is frequently reversed. If the parties themselves are unable to bring about any change, the larger public is even more helpless. It can only look to the judiciary for intervention, but that is an avenue that takes enormous resources both in terms of time and money, with far from certain outcomes.

So far all the raving and ranting we might indulge in about the state of politics and politicians, there is little reason to believe that things will change by themselves. The only way is to move towards a newer more transparent institutional mechanism in the long run. This is why it is important that the MPs be paid more ; not for today but for a probable tomorrow. It is important that along with the increased salaries, come a systematic reduction in the informal perks of power, and the current opportunity would have been a great one to negotiate for greater transparency. This was the time to have given them the raise they want, given them more if necessary but to have extracted in return a code of behaviour that is possible to monitor. Politicians today are too powerful in too many ways for our good; that is what needs to change. It is quite possible that in the short run our worthy representatives will have the best of both worlds and enjoy both the money and the power, but in the long run, our only hope of cleaner governance is to create a system that provides an incentive for the honest.