An independent committee of experts that was looking into the revision of pay and allowances for Delhi MLAs has proposed a significant increase from Rs 88,000 to Rs 2.10 lakh per month. This will provoke criticisms that the government of the Aam Aadmi Party, which set out as a voluntarist movement, morphed into a political party, secured power and once sacrificed it on grounds of principle, is now rewarding its functionaries with increased pay. Some have pointed to the irony by dredging up chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s tweet in 2012 that mocked political parties for being willing to secure a consensus on increased salaries “in five minutes” as opposed to their dithering on the Lokpal for 44 years.
There is, however, a serious issue of principle involved — one which politicians struggle to get right as it involves perceptions of rewarding themselves as professionals. The assumption the world over concerning political leaders and public officials is to accord them a decent pay so they eschew rent-seeking temptations when in office. The idea is that if politicians and officials are well paid, and if their accession to office has been above board in the first place, their service will likely be untainted by graft. To that end, the experts committee has a point. If citizens want capable figures to take to public life, then the salaries for elected representatives should be comparable to professional peers. And some of the allowances that are factored into the proposed hike are MLAs’ legitimate expenses, which are by no means cheap. These include office rent, transport, communication — and secretarial and research support, which are critical to better acquaint politicians with legislative processes and meet with the daily demands of constituents. Everyone will concede that a salary component of Rs 12,000 is hardly enough for a middle class family to make its ends meet in the Capital.
That said, Mr Kejriwal would be advised to handle this recommendation carefully, given the flak his government is facing, particularly about its handling of the dengue epidemic, which is spreading in the Capital and has brought into focus the poor state of sanitation and the availability of healthcare. There is a sense in Delhi that his government has expended too much effort on the turf war with lieutenant governor Najeeb Jung, rather than get down to the business of governance. Delhi’s citizens are disaffected by the state of the city’s infrastructure and Mr Kejriwal’s constituents like auto and taxi drivers too are unhappy with his failure to change the regulatory environment in their favour. His MLAs may have to wait for their terms to improve — as the city they govern is.