It is an innocuous clause—Section 70 (f) in the Motor Vehicles Act 1939, and Rule 108 of the MV Act of 1988. It deals with the use of “signalling appliances, lamps and reflectors”. The origins of the ploy to deploy the clause on “signaling appliances” to signal privilege is rather fuzzy. What is clear is that politicians and bureaucrats employed their genius to leverage a clause to create class distinction.
This week, the Modi government barred the use of red beacons on all official cars across India —except by the President of India, the Vice President of India and the Chief Justice of India. Symbolically some very important persons were rendered “less important” and, arguably, allowed some Indians to “feel” more equal.
True parity, however, demands follow-up for lasting effect. In any democracy, the elected are agents of the principal, of the people who are the sovereign. That is the theory. In practice, the political class, particularly the elected, have come to believe that victory in the “first past the post system” puts them ahead, entitles them to a more equal than others status.
It is indisputable that elected representatives deserve regard and recognition—they are faced with a tough task, to reconcile the grievances of the constituents and the gross failures of the system. Unfortunately, the political class tends to interpret the right to recognition as an entitlement for greater privileges. Those who profess to serve want to be served. And this expectation is nurtured by the fawn and genuflect culture— inexplicable unexplained obsequiousness has preserved this new variety of feudalism.
Politicians, elected or trounced, rarely carry their bags—there is always someone doing the needful. In Delhi’s International Airport those that trudged up ladders while boarding expect the buggy at their beck to ferry them. This nurtured feudalism is what emboldens an MP to believe that he cannot complain to anyone lesser than the CMD of Air India and hurts the collective sense of manufactured superiority when the civil aviation minister says an “MP is just another passenger”.
Mocked by the arrogance of the elected, public anger has fixated on the flashing red beacon. Unmindful of the anger, the politicos, in their quest for privileges, have shred propriety along the way. Whether they like it or not, propriety does define perceptions.vTake the issue of salaries and allowances. A committee of MPs had recommended that the basic salary of MPs be doubled from Rs 6 lakh to Rs 12 lakh a year and allowances hiked from Rs 45,000 to Rs 90,000 per month. Currently the salary of an MP is roughly six times the per capita income of Indians—for reference the salary of British MPs is twice and that of a US Congressman is three times the per capita income of their countries.
Whether a hike in salaries and allowances is justified is a secondary question. The primary question is whether MPs should be giving themselves a hike? Britain for instance has instituted a process whereby an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority recommends changes in remuneration and allowances. In the US, since the mid-1970s, salaries are automatically adjusted with cost of living adjustments for federal workers. Why not follow suit?
The MPs get housing, train and air tickets, allowances and perks. The discourse is less about the reality of need for it and more about the optics of seeming greed. Parliament of India specifies that MPs are entitled to 50,000 units of electricity per year—that is 136 units per day (India’s average per capita consumption is 1075 kwhr/year). MPs are also entitled to 170,000 free calls—that is 465 calls per day. The average John Jani Janardhan sees this as freeloading and it acquires political undertones when over a crore households have given up LPG subsidies – incidentally it would be interesting to know how many MPs/MLAs have given up LPG subsidies.
Prima facie MPs/MLAs do need resources to service their constituents. Fact is they have made a hash of their case. The need for a hike in the budget for operational expenses has been presented as a demand for higher personal allowances. Image repair will need rebooting the system. Atul Bhatkhalkar, BJP MLA from Mumbai, says the solution is in “creating permanent institutional infrastructure for MPs/MLAs”.
How about creating permanent offices for MPs and MLAs in the constituency? Why not look at a constituency office complex for MPs in Delhi? Why not create a cadre for staff and get government to fund it all? There is recognition among many politicos of the need for change. They are struggling to make a convincing case.
On Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted, “Every Indian is special. Every Indian is a VIP”. On cue, many ministers dismantled the red beacons off their cars even though the order comes into effect only from May 1. Dismantling the red beacon is easy. The dismantling of the VIP cult though requires systemic change. The expectation to be treated differently and deferentially stems from inadequacies of capacity and response in governance—in getting the most basic services from the government. This has led to the installation of the belief among the political class that they are benefactors and the constituents are beneficiaries of their munificence. The circumstance of scarce resources and scarcity of statesmanship has embedded a warped mindset.
Uninstalling this mindset calls for the installation of a real time citizens’ grievance redressal mechanism—much more than tweet-service! It would be in the interest of the elected to promote this. After all, nearly a third of elected representatives are trounced at elections —thanks to what is known as incumbency and is essentially dissatisfaction. Grievance redressal could operate at two levels—top down and bottom up. That is, systemic reforms complimented by local area services. MPs/MLAs could deploy a part of their constituency funds to create a real time service—online, app-based, backed by an 1800-helpline (http://bit.ly/VJlNOp).
The imperative is to make political intervention less relevant to render the benefactor-beneficiary equation irrelevant. Restoration of equivalence between the elected and the electors calls for a review of manufactured equations and reform governance.