Crisis Of Legitimacy

'Conspiracy of the Rich'

Bibekananda Ray

The value of assets, submitted recently to the Election Commission by the contestants for Assembly polls in five States, as reported by the media, is mind-blowing. In tiny north-eastern State of Mizoram, 36 out of 40 newly-elected MLAs are crorapatis i.e., each having assets worth one crore ((US$ 140,845) rupees, or more. So are 197 out of 230 new legislators in India's largest State of Madhya Pradesh and 68 out of 90 MLAs in Chhattisgarh. In 16th Lok Sabha, constituted on the results of 2014 poll, out of 542 candidates who declared assets, 443 (82%) had total assets, worth one crore rupees or more. In one word, they were all rich, or wealthy.

Many of MPs and MLAs are members of House committees that meet from time to time during and outside sessions; at the bidding of the party leaders, they take part in various rallies and go to Delhi to attend sessions, if they are MPs. In the history of India's legislatures, how many poor or middle-class people ever contested, won and became ministers? Mahatma Gandhi did and was none but inspired many politicians of his and other parties to live austerely; Netaji Bose and Sardar Patel never flaunted wealth, because they had very little. Ajay Mukherjee and Prafulla Chandra Sen of Congress vintage, both bachelors, lived Gandhian life and died in utter penury. Many leftist leaders also lived simple, austere life, not earning even a paise illegitimately. Are there any legislators of their vintage and are their annual property returns by present-day legislators truthful?

The salary of an MP, of either House, is Rs 50,000 per month; besides, he gets daily allowance @ Rs 2,000 per day for each day of residence on duty, monthly constituency allowance @ Rs 45,000 and monthly office expense allowance @ Rs 45,000, travelling allowance for attending a session, or meeting of a Parliamentary Committee, or attending any other business connected with the duties from their place of residence to that of duty and for return journey, for air travel @ of one and one-fourth, i.e., 125% of the air fare, for rail travel, in addition to the free executive class ticket, one first class and one second class fare for spouse and an attendant, 34 single air-journeys in a year with spouse, any number of companions or relatives. The spouse/companion can travel alone eight times a year to meet him. An MP can travel at any time by any railway in India in first class AC, or executive class and is also entitled to an escort in AC-II tier. His or her spouse gets a free railway pass to travel in first class AC, or executive class in any train, and if by air, an amount equal to the air fare, from the place of residence to Delhi and back during Parliament session up to eight such journeys in a year. An MP, having no spouse can accompany any other person in lieu of spouse besides the facility already available to the MP in respect of one companion in AC-II tier.He gets a rent-free flat or hostel accommodation throughout the term and is entitled three telephones, each of which is entitled to 50,000 free annual local calls; he also gets two mobile phones, calls from which are adjusted from the 150,000 free local calls available on the three telephones.He is also entitled to 4,000 kilolitre of water and 50,000 units of electricity per annum and the same medical facilities as of Class-I officers under Central Government Health Scheme (CGHS),up to Rs 60,000 for durable and Rs 15,000 for non-durable furniture,; he can avail an advance of up to Rs 400,000, repayable from salary 60 instalments.He gets minimum monthly pension of Rs 20,000 per month; if he has served for more than five years, he gets additional pension of Rs 1,500 per month for every additional year. His spouse or dependent (after death) is entitled for the remaining period of life to family pension equal to half of the pension otherwise admissible to the deceased MP. No income-tax is deducted at source; the daily and constituency allowances are tax-free. A Lok Sabha MP can purchase computer equipment (desktop, laptop, printer, scanner, etc) up to Rs 200,000. He gets heavily subsidised meals inside Parliament. No wonder, with such hefty salary, pension, allowances and perks, an austere MP can amass a crore of rupees, or more, in one term of five years. If they are re-elected, the saving is that much more. If an MP was not a crorepati before, he would be one in one term! Average salary of an MLA is Rs 1,10,000, (i.e., 1.1 lakh), including allowances, perks and constituency allowance. MLAs of Telangana draw the highest salary (Rs 2,50,000), those from Tripura earns the lowest (Rs 17,500).

Why is it that only the rich and the super-rich can afford to contest elections in India, held by the Election Commission, be they for the State Assemblies or the Lok Sabha. Party candidates are nominated by the parties but Independents contest themselves, if they fulfil certain criteria by the EC. To only contest, candidates have to bear some expenses—getting publicity materials designed, printed and distributed in respective constituencies, hire workers and supporters to campaign for them, hold electioneering meetings, road-shows and door-to-door contacts etc and if they are unscrupulous, secretly gratifying them in cash or kind. If they win and per chance become ministers in a coalition government, they have to keep their supporters and workers in good humour by helping them earn exploiting their names. Party candidates do all these but usually on a larger scale.

Why do people throng to an MLA or MP for favour and out-of-turn benefits, be it getting a child or issue admitted in a good school, college or university, getting a free or subsidised bed, treatment, or surgery in a government hospital, for ration card, for a plot of land or flat in a government estate or a SC/ST/OBC certificate? If the legislators are unscrupulous, they can make money out of all these; no doubt, some of them do. Do they deserve it? Constitutionally 'no' but in reality 'yes'; they take some trouble to get these things done, out of turn. There are many other ways of making a fast and dishonest buck for them- character and residency certificates, issue of ration cards, getting enrolled for 100 days' work and other rural government schemes etc.

India's politics, particularly after Independence, has been revolving on the pivot of eradicating poverty and removing backwardness; it is the main plank with all political parties, be they Congress, Leftist, Coalition, BJP and regional party-led governments. They fight and win polls on these promises and some performances, if they had served one or more terms. Yet after seven decades, poverty and backwardness persist in many regions—the Sunder-bans, Jungle Mahal and Purulia, to cite West Bengal only. Tonnes of money have gone down the drain and budgetary allocations have steadily increased in every government but no significant upgradation is seen in the lives of the poor. The only abiding ameliorations have been the spread of universal primary education, Green and White Revolutions (the latter for milk yield and marketing) both by Indira Gandhi, the land and barga (share-cropper) reforms during the 34-year Left regime in West Bengal, 100 days' work, initiated by the Congress government in 2006 but now vastly expanded by Modi and Mamata regimes. It followed the passing of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005, or NREGA (renamed as the "Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act", or MGNREGA); it was first proposed in 1991 by the Congress Prime Minister, P V Narasimha Rao; in 2006, it was finally accepted in the Parliament and implementation began in 625 districts of India. After the success of this pilot scheme, MGNREGA has been expanded and now covers all the 722 districts of India since 1st April 2008.

The older generation joined and stayed in politics out of idealism and altruism; many of them were involved in freedom struggle and served jail-terms. The present generation joins it avowedly for altruism too but with a secret motive to make hay while the sun shines. Ideology no longer drives them as it did Nehru's generation; if it did, communists when out of power, would not have joined rightist parties! Gone are days when politicians stayed on a sinking ship; as a party does well in a major poll, other party members and new aspirants jump on the band wagon! The desires to wield power and be rich drive the rank and file who have no other expertise for eking out a living except by using muscle-power to undo rivals, playing calumny Ping-Pong and making public speeches, mixing truth, untruth and half-truths.

All these remind one of a famous observation by Sir Thomas More (1478-1535, venerated in the Catholic Church as Saint Thomas More,nick-named "a man for all seasons," a British lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman, and a Renaissance humanist, a councillor to King Henry VIII, the author of 'Utopia' who was charged with high treason and executed on 6thJuly 1535:

"When I consider any social system that prevails in the modern world, I can't, so help me God, see it as anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests under the pretext of organizing society. They think up all sorts of tricks and dodges, first for keeping safe their ill-gotten gains, and then for exploiting the poor by buying their labor as cheaply as possible. Once the rich have decided that these tricks and dodges shall be officially recognized by society-which includes the poor as well as the rich-they acquire the force of law. Thus, an unscrupulous minority is led by its insatiable greed to monopolize what would have been enough to supply the needs of the whole population. (Utopia, 1516)

India's politicians will certainly not admit this Maoist thought that their activities are a 'conspiracy' of the, or to be, rich by "exploiting the poor" and to advance their own interests under the pretext of "organising the society", nor can such generalisation by a learned man of five centuries ago be true but looking back across seven decades and comparing the state of the poor with that of politicians and legislators, India's much-vaunted democracy will indeed appear to be a 'conspiracy of the rich'. ooo

[The writer retired from Indian Information Service in 2001]

Vol. 51, No.28, Jan 13 - 19, 2019