Let the culture of austerity spread as every little bit helps

  • Varun Gandhi
  • Updated: Jul 01, 2016 13:04 IST
Institutional action against systemic corruption has begun. Investigations are breaching institutional impunity — Petrobras’ reported $2 billion scam in bribes and money laun-dering, which led to an impeachment process on Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff. (AP)

Across the West, politicians are increasingly extolling the virtues of probity. Many have set a personal example — Uruguay’s former president Jose Mujica (‘the poorest President in the world’) refused to move into the State-provided luxurious post-presidential house, while donating 90% of his salary to charity. US Senator Richard Shelby returned around $1.2m (40% of his office funds) during 2011-2013, while attending 1,681 town halls and maintaining a 23-member staff team. Even the US Senate, blighted by skewed campaign financing, has sought office fund savings worth $63m across cross-party lines (Republicans returned 11.7%, the Democrats 8.3%).

Institutional checks have also grown. The Swiss government meanwhile has posted a budget surplus of 2.3 billion francs, courtesy a 2001 “debt brake” reform that forces the government to ensure that spending grows slower than revenue trend-line growth. Tony Abbot, Australia’s former prime minister, reined in government travel costs by introducing a rule that ministers would sign off on all civil servant expenses over £11,000 (any expenses above £28,000 would be signed off by the prime minister himself). The prime minister and his family also travelled economy on a gruelling 24-hour Sydney to Paris flight. Iceland’s President resigned on news of having a Panama offshore account. A culture of austerity is spreading.

Institutional action against systemic corruption has also begun. Corruption investigations are breaching institutional impunity — Petrobras’ reported $2bn scam in bribes, kickbacks and money laundering, led to an impeachment process on Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff herself. Guatamela’s President was jailed for reportedly taking bribes, while India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines saw governments reaching an absolute majority on anti-corruption manifestos. Romania has been prosecuting more than 1,250 people, including 16 members of parliament, five ministers and a former prime minister on corruption charges. The questioning of Malaysia’s Prime Minister on the 1MBD scandal ($700m making its way to his personal account), along with China’s corruption crackdown (netting 300,000 public officials in 2015) reflect a world cracking down on “grand corruption networks”.

Meanwhile, India’s political class continues to aggrandise. Along with a monthly salary of ₹1.4 lakh (18 times the average per capita income), MPs get a host of benefits (subsidised food, furniture, cleaning services, etc). The share of crorepati MPs increased to 442 in 2014, up from 300 in 2009 while 45,000 police protect them and other VIPs and conduct non-policing duties. Few conditions of service prevail — the US requires members of Congress to not earn more than 15% of their Congressional salary from outside sources.

Institutional reform has often been stymied. The Supreme Court struck down the Single Directive enabling the CBI to avoid seeking prior state permission in preliminary corruption enquiries. Cross-parliamentary consensus ensured that it was instead reinstated. The Penal Code (1860) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (1895) continue to prevent prosecution of ministers. An amendment of the Representation of People Act (1951) is long overdue — it allows for special treatment of MP/MLAs. Fast-track courts need to be established to ensure that criminal cases against public representatives are resolved as soon as possible.

Salaries require rationalisation – we should pay public representatives enough to incentivise productivity and deter corruption while indexing to the highest-paid bureaucrats as in France and Japan. We need to avoid conflict of interest situations (Mexico even disbars ministers from holding office bearer posts in a political party). Salary increments ought to be decided by a nonpartisan judicial body, with no MP overlap. BR Ambedkar’s proposed four-point system holds increasing relevance, seeking asset disclosure upon end of term, and facing questioning and penalties for any unjustified increases.

Every politician, austere or extravagant, wants to be re-elected. With electoral expenses increasing (election spends are grossly underreported by 4-6 times), financing election campaigns has become a permanent Augean exercise. Rich Lok Sabha candidates typically win — 33% of those with assets greater than ₹5 crore won in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections; only 0.44% of those with assets less than
₹10 lakh did so.

An amendment of the Representation of People Act (1951) and the Conduct of Election Rules (1961) needs to be considered. Moving towards grassroots funding, led by small-sum donors, in conjunction with intra-party democracy and transparency is needed to break up the contractor-politician nexus. Public funding of elections, along with an increase in corporate donation limits, could lead to more legal campaign financing.

Much remains to be done. Poor countries lose $1 trillion a year to self-aggrandising and corruption (Transparency International, 2015). While the human cost of such political perks remains huge, leaders and representatives continue to live luxurious lives. We need to tackle the underlying causes by reducing tolerance for political kickbacks, extravagance and open corruption. Every little bit helps.

Varun Gandhi is BJP national general secretary and a Lok Sabha MP
The views expressed are personal

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