Lest I be characterised as a habitually negative reviewer of films, cosmic justice has delivered the wonderful Lage Raho Munnabhai
(LRM) close on the heels of the dreadful Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna (Kank). Not since Lagaan have I seen a more powerful and evocative film where a message has been masterfully entwined with quality family entertainment. LRM is a challenge. We liked it because we do not find its essence in real life, and yet, its operationalisation in today's society is not so difficult as to seem impossible and unattainable.
Sequels frequently turn out to be damp squibs because they tend to be repetitive and generate so much déjà vu as to become boring. LRM has managed to convey essentially the same message as the previous Munnabhai - the vitality of good deeds and a basic faith in the essential goodness of humankind - while portraying a completely different story line, with new actors and new situations. Director Vinod Chopra is obviously a supremely confident genius who is not scared to innovate and deviate from time-tested formulae.
LRM is a lesson in communication. It creates a paradigm on which communication experts, public figures and political parties can reinvent themselves. It shows that positive thoughts and energies, once released into society, can create a seamless web that can outdo and outstrip any mega advertising campaign or any political movement. It shows how much common ground exists and can, in fact, be created at short notice in seemingly divided societies so long as the connecting element is positive energy.
The heart and soul of that commonality is the idea of paying back to society, in howsoever small a measure, both at the individual and collective levels. Paying back to society, in turn, need not involve grandiose development projects or the creation of a political or social movement. It need not involve rallies or hotly-contested elections. Deeds done at the micro-level, as public service, immediately create a connectivity far more effective than rhetoric on - as Munnabhai puts it - "hriday parivartan".
It is simply not possible for most of us to be anywhere near a 'mahatma'. For Mahatma Gandhi, there was no boundary or limit to the upkeep of a principle. One is not entitled to make any self-serving exception to that absolute and unchangeable principle. Yet, for even those who otherwise try to operationalise Gandhian values in real life, it may not always be possible to speak out the absolute and total truth, as Munnabhai advocates.
But where LRM scores is in its demonstration that small, individual acts of consideration and public service can generate an enormous groundswell of public opinion which can propel everyone to the right result. It also teaches us that there could be no greater politician than Gandhi, who had this uncanny instinct to instantly identify and address public opinion-led issues, generating immense momentum. That is a lesson that both journalists and the political class would do well to remember.
Cost to the nation
Whenever the issue of salary and increase of allowance of MPs comes up, there is a cynical reaction from the general public. There is either trenchant criticism at our allegedly profligate elected representatives or a lament at their supposedly low productivity. The general ambience is one of an undeserving class pocketing an undeserved jackpot. Likewise, the political class also bears a generally apologetic and furtive look while perforce legislating for themselves these pay hikes.
I have argued earlier that rather than looking at individual items, we should calculate the aggregate of all benefits and perks which each MP gets to arrive at his 'Cost To the Nation' (CTN). Some recent estimates of CTN per MP are as high as Rs 38 lakh per annum. That works out to Rs 3 lakh per month. It is high time that an independent pay and allowances commission be formed to periodically carry out indexing and revisions on this subject. Self-legislation, even where entirely justified and overdue, becomes a highly defensive and avoidable exercise. The last 2006 legislation that increased the amounts for legislators makes it clear that such a commission alone shall do this exercise the next time round.
If logic alone is applied, the cynicism and criticism is unjustified - or, at any rate, highly exaggerated. The JPC report of May 2006, on which the last increase was legislated, demonstrates that the CTN for countries such as Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Singapore, Britain and the US is higher (and sometimes significantly so) than the Indian figure for legislators. We may be just ahead of Bangladesh and possibly Sri Lanka, and that, too, not on many indicators.
Nor does the public outburst take into account the fact that many of our legislators hail from humble economic backgrounds. They have to discharge a large volume of public duties that inherently involve unavoidable expenditure. A large amount of travel, constant correspondence, research and secretarial assistance are inalienable components of a legislator's public life.
Perhaps the real, if unspoken, premise of this predictable reaction is the belief - not entirely unfounded - that public life in India has become so immoral that no legislator needs State support by way of enhanced salary and allowances. Like all generalisations, this is untrue - but it hides a germ of truth that should leave our legislators thinking.
The writer is senior advocate,
Supreme Court of India, and a Congress MP