SPEAKING FREELY Keep the vampires out of Indian politics
By Romi Jain
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The entry of Arvind Kejriwal, a bureaucrat-turned anti-corruption activist, onto the political map of India has turned a national spotlight on the eradication of corruption. Kejriwal, the founder and leader of the Aam Admi Party (AAP - or Common Man's Party), became the Chief Minister of Delhi, the capital of India, in December 2013, with a stated mission of cleansing the polity: "We want all corrupt to be jailed and get severe most punishment."
Though corruption is not confined to the political domain, refining the polity, the authoritative wielder of national destiny, is imperative. As a matter of fact, the magnitude of political corruption and the existing VIP culture around politics highlights
the charm that public offices hold for unconscientious individuals.
Moreover, indulgence in corrupt practices is almost a non-risky exercise because of several loopholes in anti-corruption laws, overburdened judiciaries, and politico-bureaucratic nexus. It is, therefore, essential to rid Indian politics of the lure that tempts and places vampires at the vortex of comforts.
Profligacy and poor work culture
In a self-benefiting exercise, the members of parliament hiked their salaries and allowances through a legislative amendment in 2010. As a result, their monthly salary is 50,000 rupees ($813), while monthly office and constituency allowances are 45,000 rupees each. They are also entitled to an allowance of 2,000 rupees for each day of residence on duty at a place where a parliament session is held.
According to the Citizen's Report on Governance and Development, 2013, authored by the National Social Watch, in absolute terms, the value of an Indian parliamentarian's pay and perks is 68 times higher than the per capita income of the country, and is also higher than that of their counterparts in Singapore, Japan and Italy. Their yearly amenities include 50,000 units of free electricity, 4,000 kiloliters of free water, three phone lines and 50,000 free local phone calls per line, and one free pass for first class air-conditioned or executive class train journeys, as well as access to air travel, medical, and accommodation facilities.
MLAs, the state-level counterparts of parliamentarians, have their own share of entitlements.
Consider the travel expenses of the political elite. Between 2007 and 2012, during the tenure of Pratibha Patil, then President of India, a ceremonial head, foreign travel expenses amounted to 2.23 billion rupees ($36.2 million). Similarly, since Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's assumption of office in 2004, a cost of 6.42 billion rupees have been incurred on his 67 trips abroad, with dubious gains to the nation. Other political elites such as central ministers do not lag behind. The expenses incurred on their travels went up from 0.56 billion rupees in 2010-11 to 6.78 billion rupees in 2011-12.
Moreover, legislative members are reluctant to work. The National Social Watch Report states: "In 2010-12, Lok Sabha [House of the People] worked for average of less than four hours per day during 227 sittings in 852 hours. ... The Rajya Sabha [Council of State] worked for 744 hours in 228 sittings. It functioned for three hours per day in each sitting instead of scheduled five hours, causing loss of about 442 hours in interruptions and forced adjournments."
Media, the public and activists
The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill passed in 2013 is expected to take on corruption by creating anti-corruption watchdogs at the national and state levels. More reforms such as judicial streamlining and electorate right to recall have been proposed from time to time.
What is imperative is that the reforms to curb both corruption and profligacy need to be catalyzed by the trio of media, public and activists. This is evident from the impact of the political triumph of the AAP (which evolved out of anti-corruption activism) on other state governments, regardless of the ongoing speculations about AAP's long-term political tenacity.
For example, prompted by CM Kejriwal's publicized statement that he is an Aam Admi or common man and his refusal to use escort vehicles, Uttar Pradesh CM Akhilesh Yadav decided to reduce the number of cars in his convoy. Similarly, Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje, known for her "upscale lifestyle", decided to relieve hundreds of policemen deployed in her security for deputation in public service, to stop at red lights as do "common commuters", and to reside in a small government residence rather than a luxurious bungalow.
Though these are piecemeal austerity measures that fall short of corruption-free governance, what is striking is that these governments have become apprehensive of losing electorate support in future elections, being overshadowed by the publicized political cleanness of the AAP. China comes across as a slightly similar case. One of the purposes of its central leadership's anti-graft campaigns is to assuage the smoldering public anger over the corruption-bred inequality as well as stifling public interest in governance which can possibly be aroused by a temptation to share in the national treasure.
Undoubtedly, there are non-corrupt leaders in India who lead rather simple lifestyles, such as West Bengal's CM Mamata Banerjee and Tripura CM Manik Sarkar (known for "legendary honesty"). But their clean record has failed to arouse consciences in their thick-skinned counterparts. As such, public pressure, media vigilance and committed activism are necessary for almost any political reform.
In sum, in order to keep vampires out of politics, India needs to purge its political offices of unreasonable perks and privileges, promote a work culture, and above all, make corruption lethally risky.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Romi Jain is vice president of the Indian Journal of Asian Affairs, a bi-annual, refereed journal. She is an MBA from San Francisco State University and also holds MA and BA Honors degrees in Political Science. She has extensively contributed articles on China to refereed, international journals, apart from publishing numerous creative works.