People across the world love to hate their politicians. But the trust deficit in politicians in India is perhaps unusually high,especially among the educated classes. This trust deficit by itself may not be such a problem if it does not interfere in equipping our policymakers to do their job more effectively. So when there is a suggestion to MPs about asking for professional research staff from Parliament (the US Congressmen have qualified staff of 15-20 people),they feel they will be vilified again. The consequence of such hesitation is that our MPs will be less prepared to deal with the critical policy issues that they need to address.
There is another cost of this trust deficit. Many public-spirited youngsters hesitate to join politics because they do not want to be painted by the same broad brush that we tend to use for all politicians. To add to this,if an MP gets severely underpaid and under-equipped relative to the demands of his job,it will make sure that bright young professionals will not want to enter politics unless they have other income sources.
Anyone who has seen an MP closely knows that they have a 24×7 job,the phones are constantly ringing,people are lined up all the time to see them. What they do in Parliament is only one part of what they do as politicians. But as legislators,Parliament is their primary responsibility. And that is the yardstick that we should judge them by.
Parliament used to meet for about 140 days a year in the 1950s,and is now down to about 60 days a year. The disruptions in Parliament are painful,not because of the loss in rupee value for every hour that Parliament is disrupted,but because of the infinitely larger policy costs that India incurs on account of lack of debate on national policy.
There is really not a strong case to argue against an increase in salaries for MPs. But,all that citizens see in the media is squabbling politicians,or allegations of corruption. While the media has a central role in exposing all this,the citizen is left even more disillusioned with our politics. What offends the sensibilities of a number of citizens across the country is the feeling that the politicians get away with anything.
There are three important aspects that need to be considered when thinking of salary increases for MPs. First,the extent of the change in salaries needs to be decided by an independent commission and not by MPs themselves. Second,there is a need to clarify what counts for professional support for MPs (such as staff,airfare,computers,postage,etc) and what accounts for personal allowances. Without this,there is tendency on the part of many to confuse professional needs with personal allowances. Third,there needs to be complete transparency in the overall compensation package in a cost-to-company way so that citizens know exactly what the total emoluments are.
There are no quick-fix solutions to repair the trust deficit. But citizens would welcome anything that our MPs can do to demonstrate that no Bills are passed without debate and that they will collectively improve the working of Parliament in the months ahead.
The author is director,PRS Legislative Research,New Delhi