Tuesday, October 13, 2015

400% Pay Hike For MLAs is Essential -Why?

The salaries of MLAs and MPs have always been a contentious issue, seen by the public with a lot of cynicism. It has been seen as another proof for politicians' lust for money. If I say that politicians are the most hated characters in our society, I should not be blamed for hyperbole; with the exception of a few, they are a reviled lot. In the people's eye, they are synonymous with anything and everything which is wrong with our society. Before I jumped into politics, I used to not like politics and politicians, though I had and still have very good relations with some of them and I am proud of my association with them. And one of the basic reasons for the unprecedented support for AAP has been our un-politician-like image and persona. And that is why the BJP/Congress and other traditional political parties are trying to prove that AAP is like them. They know if they could do that, AAP will lose its USP and we will be seen like any other political party.

The debate about the proposal to hike the salaries of MLAs in Delhi has to be contextualised in this framework and we need to understand the nuance of new politics and the conspiracy of the old. Let's first ask the question "Do MLAs need a salary hike?" My answer is simple - they do but with a BUT!  The MLAs of old politics don't need any salary if I may put it simply. We are in an era when corruption is rampant and it is proved by the recent statement of ex-Home Secretary and BJP MP Mr R K Singh saying that assembly tickets in Bihar are sold to criminals by BJP leaders. MLA and MP tickets are auctioned and the highest bidder gets the reward in a particular constituency. The price tag is mind boggling. There is no limit. It can be Rs. 20 to 30 crores. After "buying tickets," these leaders spend another few crores to win elections either by hook or by crook. Every dirty trick in the book is used. Money is spent like water. When such candidates become MLAs, they would undoubtedly like to recover their investment and earn more for the next elections. Do you think such MLAs would be happy with the meager amount which they get as a salary? Not a chance; they are not there to do social service. Politics in India is the most lucrative business.

After winning the elections, many AAP MLAs told me that bureaucrats and officials had come to their homes soon after the elections results and asked "Sir, the previous MLA would ask us for this amount... what should we do for you?" According to them, Rs. 12 to 14 lakhs per month is the amount which an MLA used to get earlier from the local bureaucracy and contractors. They were told that the MLA received this money without asking. It is called Nazraana (a present given to a guest or stranger). And if an MLA is greedy or enterprising, then only the sky is the limit. There are many MLAs who rode a scooter before getting elected, and now they have a BMW or Mercedes and live in palatial bungalows. Do you think they could buy these luxuries from their salaries?

AAP MLAs have been warned that if they are found indulging in any such corrupt practice, the party itself will take them to Tihar Jail. More than half of AAP's MLAs belong to the lower middle class. Many of them had good businesses or jobs before jumping into the India Against Corruption movement but over a period of time, their businesses collapsed and jobs were lost. Now they are dependent on the salary they get as lawmakers or financial support from their friends and well wishers. It is impossible to sustain families with a salary of Rs. 12,000. It is true that they get other allowances to run their offices which are around Rs. 70,000 net but that amount does not go to the MLA, it is real-time expenditure.

Delhi is one of the costliest cities in India. Even a normal office on rent that an MLA needs costs Rs. 30,000 to Rs. 40,000 a month. If one adds other expenses like office boys, computer operator, clerk, driver and petrol to move around a constituency, this goes beyond Rs. 1,50,000. Then there are the innumerable constituents who visit the MLA every day and they all expect to be served a cup of tea or a glass of water and sometimes meals as well. An MLA is also expected to visit every marriage or birthday party held in the constituency and there also he/she is expected to bring some gift or pay some token money - the smallest of which is an envelope with Rs. 1,001. If he/she is not doing that as has been practiced by BJP/Congress MLAs, then it does not auger well in the constituency. Many of AAP's MLAs are already bankrupt or on the verge of being so.

I can understand that this is not an issue for those MLAs who have millions of rupees stashed away. There are many in our party too. It is also not an issue for those MLAs who are getting a cut in every financial deal happening in their constituency. It is important for those who are honest, and AAP MLAs are honest. Though I am also not denying that there are honest MLAs in other parties, their number is miniscule.

A salary hike is important for honest politics and clean politics. A salary hike is important for an honest MLA if we want him to live with dignity and self-respect. A salary hike is important if we don't want an honest MLA from any party to have to make compromises due to financial constraints. So it's my humble request that this salary hike recommendation should not be seen from the old prism where it was linked with greed. This should be seen as part of the revolution. It's for clean politics. It's part of the new beginning. Debate is good, but belittling the move will support those whom all of us want to uproot.

(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)

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