There has been an outburst of media outrage in India over the 100% increase in salaries and perquisites of legislators elected or nominated to the Lok Sabha (Lower House) and the Rajya Sabha (Upper House).
This ill-timed and distinctly unpopular largesse will cost Indian taxpayers over Rs121 crore annually.
What hurt the public sentiment the most was the manner and timing of the new legislation. Neither house was functioning for 14 days. It costs Rs2.6 lakh a minute to keep both houses running normally. The accumulated loss during the last two weeks was estimated by enterprising TV experts at more than Rs131 crore.
A normal day’s session is supposed to run nearly six hours.
During the budget session, only two bills could be passed. The first was the critically important Finance Bill, which ensured an endorsement of the 2018-19 national budget proposals. Speaker Sumitra Mahajan railroaded it, ignoring a tumultuous Lok Sabha.
The second bill to be passed confirmed the 100% salary and perks hike for the MPs, indicating a rare unity among legislators when it comes to enriching themselves at public cost.
Their contribution to the present session so far: on 12 of the 14 days, the two houses had not sat for more than 6 minutes at a stretch because of the noise and pandemonium.
A further sweetener on the salary hike is that the Parliament has already passed legislation to ensure that MPs will have their earnings reviewed once every five years.
On the very important budget proposals barely a year before India faced another general election, there was, incredibly, no debate. Opposition parties, especially the Indian National Congress, preferred to write off a major opportunity to attack the numerous failures of the Modi government by encouraging non- stop slogan shouting along with other parties.
Ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, feebly calling for sanity and co-operation, hardly tried to resolve the deadlock. The Congress-led second UPA Government too, had been unable to run Parliament for almost three years prior to 2014, thanks to the continuous screaming and heckling from the opposition, then led by the BJP.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was really on the ropes following the massive bank frauds carried out by operators like Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksey, and others currently known as the “Gujarati mafia.” Their familiarity with the Prime minister added further embarrassment. Then came the unnecessarily delayed announcement of the massacre in Iraq of 39 Indian workers by IS terrorists almost four years ago.
Given this backdrop and the shock of losing three seats in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and failure to increase either employment or industrial production, the BJP was caught on a very sticky wicket.
The force was now with a clearly resurgent opposition, despite the majority enjoyed by the BJP. The Congress was gaining new ground. The idea of a third front of regional parties was revived.
So why did parties like the TDP of Andhra, the AIADMK of Tamil Nadu, the Trinamool Congress of West Bengal and the Congress party itself, by sponsoring continuous disruption and slogan shouting, prevent both houses from functioning normally? Surely, they had let the BJP off the hook.
In explanation, each party spoke for itself, exposing the lack of cohesive coordination among regional outfits. For the AIADMK, the sharing of Cauvery waters with Karnataka was important, while for Andhra Pradesh, nothing was more important than ensuring a special statehood. For Congress, it was the massive bank fraud. All pressed for an immediate adjournment motion on each of these issues, all at once.
So far so bad, but far worse was the general reaction of people who called in to participate on special TV programs to discuss the new bounty for Indian MPs. Most were indignant if not abusive, recalling their own hard labour daily to make ends meet.
The anger of the people was understandable. Only 15 years or so ago, the officially appointed Arjun Sen Gupta committee had reported that the majority of the Indian poor survived on Rs20 or less per day.
Yet by 2015, Indians were shelling out more than Rs2,70,000 to pay a Lok Sabha MP his salary and allowances. The Rajya Sabha MPs earn marginally less, not having constituencies to look after.
In 2018, this figure will likely cross Rs500,000 every month for each MP, inclusive of basic pay, constituency allowance, furniture, staff, medical expenses, and travel facilities.
“Why? This is highway robbery! Rs500,000 for just a few minutes of shouting and raising slogans daily? Is this what we vote for?” asked a caller from Pune.
Finally, the question as to what sort of people were being elected by the Indian people could not be ignored either. According to the findings of the Association for Democratic Reforms, most MPs were already rich, if not super rich.
In 2014, 82% of MPs reported assets of Rs1 crore and more. The richest, a TDP leader, had assets of over Rs 683 crores. The percentage of ‘crorepati’ MPs increased steadily over the years from 30% in 2004 to 58% in 2009. These people will now be further subsidised at taxpayers’ expense.
However, being well-off did not apparently curb criminal tendencies at the individual level. A recent survey revealed that out of 4,896 MPs and MLAs currently in active politics, 1,581 were fighting criminal cases. Many were also accused of having committed crimes against women.
“Surprisingly, it seems that the financial background of most election ticket seekers of political parties in India counts for more than their criminal or other backgrounds,” says Kolkata-based analyst Charubrata Ray.