To hike, or not to hike

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By N Sathiya Moorthy

Where did it all begin, this talk of increasing the salaries for parliamentarians and ministers, equating them with those for corresponding positions in higher judiciary? President Maithiripala Sirisena is personally on record that he would not approve of it, those speaking for Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe later on too have echoed similar views, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya says no decision has been taken yet – in which case, how did the idea crystallise, why and where? Maybe, only a Presidential Commission of Inquiry would be able to tell us the roots of what is however acknowledged as something much more than a rumour or a media-creation.

The question is not about how much more should MPs and Ministers get, but whether they should get a hike at all – now or ever. If a majority of them had taken monthly cuts from the likes of Perpetual Treasuries, or lump-sum grants, whenever, however, should they not be arraigned before the laws that they have enacted for lesser mortals than appreciate them for such efforts with a self-granted, self-satisfying increment in money terms?

The Perpetual Treasuries and Arjun Alosyius may only be the tip of the iceberg and more corporate skeletons may fall out of parliamentarians’ cupboards if probed deeper. But the authorities are doing in the case of the Rajapaksa clan – and none else. Politics, did you say, is behind the Government chasing the Rajapaksas and leaving out the rest of them all, possibly including some incumbent MPs and Ministers?

Monopoly in corruption, grains trade and corporate linkages was not exclusive to the Rajapaksas while in power. Even in their case, the Government wants to act, not when the latter came to power as promised but now when they are faced with an electoral return of the former. Why talk about the rest?

Who can guarantee?

When the question is if MPs should get a pay-rise at all, there was this Indian leader who is reported to have commented that he would consider similar demands from the striking police men if someone could guarantee that they would not go back to taking bribes. C Rajagopalachari, popularly known as Rajaji, was Chief Minister of post-Independence Madras State from 1952-54, having laid down office as the nation’s only Indian Governor-General at the birth of the Indian Republic, on 26 January 2016.

The other question remains, if for ‘serving’ their people, as they vow at every election time, MPs and Ministers should get paid at all? Whatever that is, thankfully for them, neither President Sirisena, nor Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is known to have laid down such a pre-condition as Rajaji’s. Such a condition would have been the most difficult one to implement. If nothing else, we would not have all those thousands of candidates coming up to contest for all those 225 seats in Parliament, followed by those in nine Provincial Councils and all those local government institutions across the country.

Who can guarantee good behaviour on the part of our politicos, or any other section of the society? Each one lives in his own creation of a glass cage and throws stones at the rest, when and only when it suits him or her? It is a merry-go-round, where all players are as prosecutors as they are accused, when it goes round and round and round.  Who knows, when the ‘top’ goes down, and the bottom comes up? Ask the Rajapaksas, maybe they will have a few lessons to teach the rest, at least as of now.

Oligarchy of a kind

No amount of pay or pay-hike will suffice under an electoral system where universal adult suffrage of the Third World kind has thrown up opportunities and demands for lesser mortals to represent their segments of neglected communities from previous generations and centuries. Sri Lanka prides itself as the first Asian nation to introduce universal suffrage as early as 1931, full 17 years before the nation acquired Independence, so the perils too run as much deeper.

Earlier, wherever popular elections were in practice, voting rights were confined only to people with certain education qualification and/or those who paid tax to the Government, and were thus considered having wherewithal to strive to be relatively honest.

Such a course only sought to perpetuate the existing oligarchy but conferring a new twist to the tale, in the form of the procedures, and nothing else. The oligarchy was broad-based through the system of selective suffrage, and so were the benefits of such expansion. Those that stayed outside earlier remained outside, now as well.

In the 21st century, where the educated also know to cheat better, and also ensure that they do not always get caught, education alone cannot be a qualification for returning to selective suffrage. Nor can tax-paying capacity be a criterion, even granting salaried-income is exempted for the purpose. Those that pay land-tax know how to evade and they are also the ones who want more of the land and less of the tax.

Guided democracy or what

The Sri Lankan kind of western democracy has inflicted a two-party system for large parts from which the nation is unable to, and unwilling to take a break. Recall what US politicians and media commentators declared when Independent candidate Ross Peros polled near-20 per cent, or one-fifth of the votes in the presidential polls in 1992: “We will not allow this to happen again.” In the next, 1996 polls, Perot did contest, but was a wash-out.

The western system, in principle, has accepted universal franchise as a creed, and makes a big show of it. In nations where money changes hands through more ‘honourable’ and undetectable ways, and to third-nation tax-havens, they continue preaching ‘best practices’ to the rest of the world. By keeping public morals on the top of their political practices and electoral agendas for keepsake, they have made the world believe that family wealth and professional, professional earnings are the sine quo non for a successful politician / parliamentarian.

Such a systemised approach to democracy has ensured that the common man can only hope to cast their vote, if allowed by the system, and not contest elections and hope to become parliamentarians and ministers. You also now know why most of their people do not turn up to vote, even if given 15 or 30 days’ windows to discharge their democratic duties. Does Sri Lanka require one of that kind?

Anti-defection law

In contemporary Sri Lanka (read: post-Independence), every Government has survived and grown only by encouraging defections from the rival camp(s). There is a price to be paid for MPs and Ministers getting a sudden-change-of-heart while waking up one fine morning. Either they are apprehensive that they will not get elected under the same party and symbol, or they can do with certain comforts that is exclusive to ministerial positions, and/or some more money than what their ‘public service’ has brought them already.

The answer is in bringing up an anti-defection law, or a freedom of vote on Government resolutions in Parliament. Better still, those that want to defect, fearing re-election under the same symbol, could well be made to quit their seat, and contest ‘special by-elections’, which facility is not now available to them under the existing system of ‘proportional representation’ (PR). There are problems drafting such a piece of legislation but this one could be more meaningful than any other that may be up on the anvil.

But no party or leader, be it Sirisena or Wickemesinghe, would want to risk his own career on the altar of best political principles and electoral practices. For Wickremesinghe now and also the Rajapaksas, otherwise, they are counting only on defections to stay on, or come back to power, as is the respective case.

Sirisena does not seem to fancy himself on either of these departments, and can talk principled politics (which is as principled as politics is). Of course, all three leaders do know that the public mood is all set against the political class, and any pay-hike of the kind for their parliamentarians just now could lead to further revulsion, if not to a popular revolution!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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