“The people are fashioned according to the example of their kings; and edicts are of less power than the life of the ruler.” – Claudianus, epic poet of Alexandria (Circa 365-408).
Even though we have transited from monarchy to democracy and our rulers are a collective of parliamentarians, the importance of example, or the more fashionable expression, role model, is equally relevant to the present age. Just as ancient Tullius Cicero, Roman philosopher (BC106-43) said “Men think they may justly do that for which they have a precedent”, the latter day Edmund Burke, Irish orator and statesman (1729-1799) echoed the same idea: “Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other”.
Against this background, what kind of role models are our Members of Parliament (MPs), our modern rulers who have collectively substituted for the traditional kings? The latest provocation for raising this question comes because of the fat salary and perks that they voted for themselves. But, first the facts.
Continuing self-gratification unabashedly, the MPs, on August 27, 2010, upheld the hike in their salary and perks as the Lok Sabha adopted Salary, Allowances and Pensions of Members of Parliament (Amendment} Bill, 2010. The Bill, approved on August 31 by Rajya Sabha, provides for hike of more than 300% in salary from Rs. 16,000 per month to 50,000 and doubling constituency allowance to 45,000 per month and daily allowance from Rs 1,000 to Rs. 2,000. The increase in salaries of MPs and pension to former MPs would cost the exchequer an additional Rs. 103.76 crores every year. Besides, there will be one-time expenditure of Rs. 118 crores on payment of arrears of salary and pension The pension for former MPs will go up from Rs. 8,000 per month to Rs 20,000. The increase in daily constituency and office expenditure allowance will cost Rs. 35.8 crores every year.
While voting the fat hikes for themselves, the MPs made hypocritical noises about the lack of morality in voting the excesses for themselves and called for a fig leaf of an independent mechanism for the future. Over the last many months, the MPs, especially from the Opposition, have been beating their breasts – and observed a Bharat Bandh – in the name of poor janata hurt by inflation. Incidentally, MPs now also get to spend at their discretion Rs. 2 crores each per year under the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme. And they want this figure to be hiked to Rs. 6 crores.
Apart from what MPs get from the Central exchequer, they also get, without much fanfare or publicity, collateral benefits from State governments as, for instance, Karnataka MPs do. Sample this:
Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa announced on August 19, 2010, additional benefits for Parliamentarians from Karnataka. Inaugurating the newly constructed Karnataka Bhavan annex building in Delhi, the Chief Minister said the State government would provide 500 litres of petrol per month for each MP as against the existing 300 litres. Apart from this, the Chief Minister announced the construction of a new guest house in Bangalore to provide transit accommodation for state MPs. Now, each MP is entitled to have a car, an office in the district headquarters, a driver and first and second division clerks at the cost of the State government. Besides, the State government also provides cars for them to travel in and around Delhi.
There are other facets of the MPs, including integrity and work ethics that impinge on their role model issue.
At length corruption, like a general food
(So long by watchful ministers withstood),
Shall deluge all, and avarice, creeping on,
Spread like a low-born mist, and blot the sun.
- Alexander Pope, English poet (1688-1744)
Sir Robert Walpole, English statesman and parliamentarian (1676-1745), with reference to his fellow MPs, said: “All those men have their price”. If anything the probity of our MPs today has been declared negatively by our MPs themselves. On October 21, 2008, BJP MP, Babubhai K Katara, was expelled from the Lok Sabha after an inquiry committee of the House held him guilty of grave misconduct for trying to illegally take two people on the passport belonging to his wife and son. According to the motion for his ouster, he “committed an act of grave misconduct which has brought disrepute to and maligned the image of entire fraternity of legislators”.
The inquiry committee, in its report on this infamous human trafficking case, taking advantage of the privileges of an MP, had observed that the members of Parliament should measure to the people’s expectations by conducting themselves honourably and honestly. “The Committee laments that Mr. Katara’s conduct is a far cry from the virtues expected of MPs. To say that the conduct of Mr. Katara was unbecoming would be putting it rather too mildly.” This self-righteous language has to be viewed against the background that Mr. Katara is the 11th member of the 14th Lok Sabha to be expelled. Earlier, 10 members had been expelled in the cash-for-question scam exposed through a sting operation by a TV channel.
A day earlier, then Chef Election Commissioner, N Gopalaswamy, in his Sardar Vallabhai Patel memorial lecture in Hyderabad, stated that the Commission wanted Parliament to pass legislation to bar persons charged with heinous crimes from contesting elections. But, this did not pass muster as MPs raised concern over foisting “false cases”. He said that 18.18% of candidates who stood for Lok Sabha elections in 2004 had criminal cases pending against them. We have the ugly scenario of MPs coming from jails on parole to vote in crucial votes of confidence. Things have become worse since then. While there were 128 MPs with dubious backgrounds in the last parliament, there are 150 of them now. Of them, 72 face ‘serious’ charges. The number of ‘crorepatis’ too have increased like that of the MPs with anti-social antecedents – from 154 in the last parliament to 300 in the current, which suggests that politics is a highly ‘paying’ profession.
The other malaise of is plain hooligan or juvenile behaviour of MPs in Parliament. Questioning the credibility of elected representatives, a concerned citizen had written to the then Speaker of Lok Sabha, Somnath Chatterjee, (read out at party leaders’ meeting) saying that the country’s interests cannot be sacrificed just because a “bunch of elected representatives should rather take a day off… While I respect your decision to pay homage to the several blast victims, the decision to adjourn the House was, I am sorry to say, a terrible one. How will people come out to vote in large number if elected representatives indulge in such massive dereliction of duty? …We want you people to work and not shirk. The tax payer spends an awful lot of money on Parliament and expects engagement, debate and decision and not walk-outs and adjournments.”
Finally, we come to elections which give birth to MPs. The periodicity of election varies; but, you know that election is not far off when a candidate can recognize you across the street. George Bernard Shaw said that democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few. Today, however, because of the massive money power, it is election by the corruptible many. Karl Marx said through elections, the oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representative of the oppressing class to represent and repress them. If Marx were alive today, he would have substituted “oppressing class” by “corrupting class”. For, MPs are born in sin by falsifying the source of election expenses and filing false statements of election expenses. In addition to bribing voters with money and in kind, they spend massive unaccounted money on “paid news”, corrupting the media in the bargain.
There is much more that can be said on the subject of corruption and healthy work culture among MPs. They may be paragons of virtue in their cloistered private lives. But, on the basis of their public performance (or the lack of it?), can our MPs be role models?
John B. Monteiro, author and journalist, is editor of his website www.welcometoreason.com (Interactive Cerebral Challenger).
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