During his visit to Mumbai last week, Anna Hazare made a comment on MPs’ salaries which deserves to be quoted in full because it is a fine indicator of both what is wrong with his anti-corruption movement and what is right with it.
Anna said Members of Parliament (MPs) should forgo their salaries in view of the current economic crisis. “MPs have gone to Parliament to serve the nation, so why are they accepting salaries in a crisis,” he asked. He then went on to say that MPs should not insist on free air travel and certain allowances that they get (he did not specify which ones).
The first part of his statement, I think, shows exactly where his movement is messing it all up, while the second part highlights why the movement must stay alive. To say that MPs should not take salaries is unbridled populism which will draw cheers from sections of the middle-classes, but it is not just unrealistic but also unreasonable. A healthy civil society movement must aim at preventing corruption and loot of the public exchequer; starving MPs cannot be part of the agenda. That is anti-politics in character, and India’s problem is not politics but under-performing politics.
The second part of the statement is slightly nuanced and therefore significant. The point about free air travel and allowances, if taken further, can lead to precisely the kind of informed debate that Anna’s movement needs to trigger and be at the centre of.
MPs and legislators in some states, including Maharashtra, got their salaries revised in 2010. That was a much-needed revision, because our public representatives were being poorly paid, but the issue that needs to be discussed in the public domain is how MPs’ and legislators’ salaries are fixed. A Parliamentary or legislative committee looks into the matter and makes recommendations, and as soon as its report is in, its proposals are cleared by the Parliament or legislature without any debate.
Former Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee had suggested that a committee of experts outside the House be set up to examine the issue, but his plea was not heard. Former Union home secretary Madhav Godbole has pointed out that no suggestions are sought on the nature and scale of the hike from intellectuals, civil society or NGOs, and that most of the hike that Parliament-arians/ legislators give themselves is in the nature of allowances, so the money is non-taxable. The food that MPs get at concessional rates in the Parliament cafeteria and other “hidden benefits” they get in the form of freebies should be stopped, Godbole has suggested.
Our MPs always talk of how, though Article 105 of the Constitution grants them powers and privileges inside Parliament, they are, outside the House, ordinary people subject to the country’s laws. Perhaps, as Godbole suggests, they could also then work, as the rest of India does, on the basis of ‘no work, no pay’ (the Lok Sabha works for around 85 days a year, says Godbole, while the House of Commons in the UK works for 255 days and the US Senate for 240 days).
So Anna is on the right track when he touches upon the finer points; it is when he paints things in black and white that he loses the plot. The time has now come to tell him that he cannot allow the anti-corruption movement to die all of a sudden. The participation of civil society in redesigning governance mechanisms is critical, and having, to his credit, triggered a nationwide debate on corruption and accountability, he needs to keep going.
The Second Administrative Reforms Commission says in its April 2009 report that India’s governance structures need to be reworked in order to make the government apparatus an instrument of service to the people; if Team Anna lends strength to the voice of civil society groups, citizens can play a key role in driving this change.