House of Lords, truly!

It no longer surprises or shocks us when politicos help themselves to public money. The only highlight perhaps in lawmakers voting a higher salary for Self & Co is that the ugly heist has been staged in full public view instead of on the sly, and quite lawfully too. So, sans the shady secrecy, it therefore loses the spectacular status of a scam or scandal, despite qualifying in every other way.

The average ‘declared’ worth of an MP is ₹ 5cr and a minister, ₹ 7.5cr. However, it is worthwhile knowing how much dearer our dear reps have turned. Post this scam-that-was-not, an MP would get as salary, allowances and other fees about ₹ 160,000/- per month. And then there are a host of non-cash perks which make the cost to the country many times more. The revisions, expected to be passed godspeed, would take effect retrospectively from May 2009 when this Parliament was constituted bringing the arrears alone to ₹ 175 cr! An MP will now earn 70 times the Per Capita Income of an average praja he represents.That circular structure not only seems recession-proof but also looks well insulated from common sensibilities which it is supposed to understand, articulate and address.

On the contrary, gross insensitivity pervaded both the demand and the debate. This when the public domain was inundated by numbers and a slew of calculations and comparisons, all of which would have made even a medieval plunderer ponder a bit. But not our intransigent lot who were also quite well aware of the other calculations that they can avail themselves of: After all, there are always trust votes, difficult Bills, question hours and sundry other opportunities that only warrant some minimal flexibility on the floor but bring rewards many suitcases-times the ‘measly’ official package. Again, most are many-time MPs, past ministers or even ex-Chief Ministers and, therefore, no strangers to the copious offerings of public office. Still these worthies haggled like hawkers as if their life and livelihood depended on State handout. That called for real gall. And coming as it did from the champions of social justice made the whole drama downright vulgar!

The Yadav duo, Lalu and Mulayam, even had the temerity to declare that the salary should be at least ₹ 1 more than the highest paid bureaucrat. They had probably laid a wager to that effect with some disobedient Babu in their State or central ministry that they had headed. But their attitude does raise some moot questions. Uncivil though their behaviour, in and outside Parli, can the MPs be treated like civil servants, who are more or less permanent fixtures? For instance, is it not preposterous that an MP is entitled to pension? Even if he was so just for a day! It is outrageous that when even our present is shaky, our temporary reps’ future should be so secure. Clearly this makes MPs, most of whom are dispensable, permanent parasites on the public instead. And if the pension is posthumous,we have generations of parasites to feed!

Indeed, it is a perversion even to use the word salary in their context. Parliament is not in session all through the year and seasons. If time spent in constituency is deemed as working hours then there must be some way of accounting and monitoring it. Even so, ‘charging’ for that should tear away the tag of public service that all politicos wear nonchalantly! In short, salary always comes with LoP. Now, we know that the national addiction to absenteeism or holidays afflicts the prosperous proletariat of Parliament too. But even considering just the Parliament days as work days, the MPs get paid even if they are nowhere near Delhi! Nor do they face any deduction, like us ordinary folks who elect them, if they land up late, adjourn, walk out or scoot in some way. No fines either, for unruly behaviour. And no damages are due for broken mikes, tables and chairs! Really, all fixed pay should be scrapped and only sitting fees (that is, when MPs sit for rest and then rise to shout), that too strictly based on attendance, must be allowed!

The ones to be pitied, that is other than the voters, are the ‘unworthy’ MPs. There are quite a few of them with paltry assets and nary any ‘other’ income and well below Parliament’s own poverty line. They are also the ones ashamed at the behaviour of their mates who have justified the hike as a ‘performance incentive’ for the 8.5% economic growth. These poor MPs have rejected the very idea of a revision, despite their dire needs and that is because they are in touch with Indian reality which is quite different from statistical reality. They are the real reps because they face or are willing to face what their electors face. Forget the fat static pay, sitting fees and standing committee costs; other running expenses that ruin our collective pockets include free accommodation in palatial colonial bungalows in upmarket Delhi that can house colonies of homeless voters, free business class air travel and free train travel for self and family, free water, electricity and phone calls, free medical facility on call, subsided food (₹ 12 per thaali!) … indeed these are things that our reps can actually afford but an average Indian would sell his soul for! But MPs actually get paid for doing just that! A saner sensitive option would be to exclude this creamy layer, based on declared incomes and assets, from the hefty pay and perks so that the deserving MPs are not affected. Or give an option of an IT rebate to the Lords if they donate their entire pay to the commons. That would actually test their ‘service’ credentials too besides hoisting ‘social justice’ at the very heart of our democracy! Some fodder there for cowboy Lalu who milked Bihar dry, to breed, pardon, brood!

Add to these the mind-boggling costs of electing them every five years or even at earlier intervals. And then there is this other monstrous upper appendage with the lofty nomenclature ‘Rajya Sabha’, actually poojyam in terms of any contribution to the nation, a talking club of ‘elders’ whose pranks nevertheless are as puerile as their ‘Lower’ counterparts.
These unelected elite suck too at the same ‘asking’ rate as LS MPs!

Indeed, our sound democracy comes at an unaffordably steep price. How we wish the Well in the Parli that these Stall-Warts often rush into when agitated, is a real Well, wide and deep, even bottomless and waterless! And not saving them would save us a lot and a lot of us too!

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Jawahar T R