Scramble for power and pelf: India’s elected representatives in an unedifying spectacle

Only adequate remuneration and commensurate punishment for infringement can the practice of illegal gratification be significantly reduced, if not eliminated, writes Amb Sarvajit Chakravarti (retd) for South Asia Monitor 

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Rebel Maharashtra MLAs (Photo: Twitter)

The unedifying spectacle of the current scramble for power and pelf in Maharashtra, one of India’s richest and most advanced states, raises the perennial question of why, since independence, becoming an elected representative of any level should be so attractive in a democratic India. After all, all such representatives from the president to the municipal councillor are salaried persons elected to serve the government, sworn to uphold the Constitution that we, the people, have given ourselves. Such salaried persons are sworn to serve the people without fear or favour.  

The salaries of such elected representatives are paid from the exchequer funded by the taxpayers of India who expect them to live within those means unless they have legitimate private income of their own. They are required to identify problems, create mitigatory policies and supervise their implementation by the bureaucracy. The political representatives and the bureaucracy, therefore, comprise the government of India, its states, Union Territories and municipalities.  

The honest discharge of their responsibilities and functions to the best of their abilities should not require additional gratification by their beneficiaries comprising the citizens of this nation to access government services, fees and charges for which are well established and notified to the general public. If such gratification was altogether spurned, the money saved would have entered the economy and contributed to productive private economic activity, stimulating growth and employment as well as augmenting the exchequer at all levels. 

Why illegalities? 

Such funds would have enabled the government to engage enough personnel to provide the desired services to all applicants within the stipulated or reasonable time. It is the deficiency of such systems and staff for timely service delivery that induces some applicants to offer additional illegal gratification and for some bureaucrats/political representatives to accept them. This renders some positions more lucrative to their occupants than others, corrupting the whole system, leading to extortion and criminality. 

The bureaucracy was given the perquisites of housing, healthcare and standardized school education so that they could be transferred as necessary without undue disruption to their private lives and families. Transfers were meant to be a routine part of public service to provide the bureaucracy to gain greater experience and develop wider perspectives and capability of discharging greater responsibilities as they rose in their respective services. Now, however, it often appears as a punishment because of the failure of government to provide the promised three perquisites at standard levels in sufficient quantity or quality. 

The need of the bureaucracy for illegal gratification arises from their aspiration to match the quality of life that the private sector enjoys, with starting salaries for university graduates reaching over one crore rupees a year. This pay gap earlier used to be compensated for by the high standards of public educational and healthcare, which is sadly no longer uniformly the case.  

Electoral costs  

The public infrastructure is sorely in need of upgrade and modernization, as shown starkly during the Covid-19 pandemic, in which some of my foreign service colleagues passed away waiting in queues for emergency hospital treatment or oxygen supplies. 

The obscene cost of our current electoral process is another major contributory factor, which is fuelled by the lure of illegal lucre that an elected political office seems to offer. Candidates and parties seem to spend enormous amounts on campaigning, often beyond their declared resources, in the hope that such expenditure may be recouped in office. The current electoral bond system is not adequate to compensate for this. 

What, therefore, can be the remedies?  

First is the stated, certified and justiciable commitment by all those who hold political or bureaucratic offices that they will live within their given means, which may be transparently augmented by other declared sources of legitimate income. 

Enact rules 

This may be done by Parliament, State and municipal secretariats with the support of the judiciary, possibly as part of the Oath of Office and Secrecy administered to the elected representatives. For the bureaucracy, such oaths in writing may be obtained by their departments at all levels. 

Secondly, the perquisites offered, particularly of healthcare and school education, must be upgraded to a uniform high standard so that transfer is not deemed punitive. 

Thirdly, emoluments must rise with the cost of living so that there is no genuine shortfall of earned resources to maintain the expected quality of life and dignity of public service. 

Fourthly, by judicious use of additional staff and software, supply of each service must be matched with and continuously keep pace with its demand. An applicant should not need to make more than two visits to the location of application for and receipt of a particular service. Even these may be minimised by offering online options. Personal interface must be avoided to the extent possible. 

Government must act 

On the flip side, vigilance organizations and tax authorities must be more alert and proactive in monitoring the growth of personal assets over the period of service of political and elected representatives as well as bureaucracy. The judiciary must take steps promptly to redress reported infractions. 

Only by a combination of adequate remuneration and commensurate punishment for infringement can the need and practice of illegal gratification be significantly reduced, if not altogether eliminated. That will enable realization of the vision of our founding fathers, in this 75th year of India's independence. 

(The author is a former Indian ambassador. Views are personal) 

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