Politician salaries and corruption

Recently, Vijay Nair, CEO of OML Entertainment, which organises the popular NH7 Weekender music festivals, tweeted that the Weekender in Delhi last month was the first where he didn’t have to pay a single paisa of bribe.

Just before the event, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal gave a speech in which he stated that he had bought passes for the event by paying for them, and urged his ministers and other government officials to do the same rather than asking for freebies.

Yesterday the Delhi government increased salaries of its legislators and ministers by a factor of four (which the Economic Times incorrectly reported as a “400% increase” – it’s a 300% increase).

The basic monthly salary of Delhi MLAs and ministers is all set to go up by a whopping 400 per cent besides significant hike in a slew of allowances with the assembly today approving a bill to effect the increase considering rising cost of living.

The Delhi government will now send the bill to the Centre and if it is approved, then basic salaries of legislators will rise from current Rs 12,000 to Rs 50,000 …

The move to increase Delhi legislator salaries has been expectedly panned by opposition parties, but it is an important step in reducing corruption, the main plank on which the Delhi government came to power last year.

In order to better understand this, go back to Kejriwal’s statement before the Weekender urging officials to purchase their tickets and not ask for freebies. The on-ground price of a ticket for the Delhi Weekender was Rs. 3500.

As per existing salary structures, a Delhi MLA would have had to spend a quarter of his monthly basic salary for the event. If he were to buy tickets for his family of four, he would have to spend his entire monthly basic salary (I understand there are other components of compensation, too)! And this would have been good enough justification for him to ask for free tickets.

While a higher salary might still not prevent an MLA from demanding free tickets, his earlier moral justification for the demand doesn’t exist any more – since the new salary structure now makes the tickets affordable. This removal of moral justification is certain to have an impact on corruption at the margin.

More importantly, official salary levels have a massive impact on the kind of people the profession attracts. When you get paid a pittance as a politician, it repels people who are loathe to be corrupt – for it is next to impossible to make a decent living on such salaries. People will be loathe to leave well-paying jobs for politics, and the only people politics will attract are those that hope to make money on the side.

I hope the Centre approves the Delhi government’s proposal to increase salaries, and other states match this. Given the small number of legislators and ministers, fiscal impact will be marginal. But the impact it can have on corruption, in terms of removing the moral justification, and on the kind of people it will attract to politics will more than pay for this.

Booth level coordinators for AAP

In today’s Economic Times, I was reading this article on the attempts by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to establish roots in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The article mentioned about the party already recruiting booth level coordinators in those two states and thus starting to prepare for the forthcoming elections.

The question, however, is why someone would want to be a booth coordinator for AAP. Before we examine that, let us examine why someone would want to be a booth coordinator for a party – some might see it as a stepping stone – having coordinated a booth, one might find a way into the higher echelons of the party, and might result in an MLA ticket the next time round.

However, in most cases this is rather unrealistic. Given the number of booth coordinators required in each assembly constituency, the promise of at most one of them being elevated to MLA is not enough to motivate them to work. The party needs to find a different way of compensating them.

Cadre based parties do this by paying their members a salary, and booth coordinators are thus paid to do their work. The salary may not be immense, but most cadre-based parties are ideologically driven and it is possible to find party workers who are willing to work as booth coordinators for the given fee.

Less ideological (and perhaps more practical minded) parties use a different method to motivate their booth coordinators – they are promised sweet deals and government contracts in return for their services. Given the size of the government and the discretion of the elected representatives, it is possible to suitably compensate each booth coordinator. For example, the guy who coordinated my booth for the sitting MLA’s party in the last elections also got the contract to desilt and cover the storm water drains on my road!

Coming back, how do you think the AAP will find booth coordinators? While it may be a strongly ideological party, it is still young and is unlikely to have the resources to find enough motivated people to man booths in quantities required to run a national election. Hence the nominally paid cadre route is ruled out. Then, the very ideology of the AAP means that the party is against corruption, and working out sweet deals for its booth coordinators will go against the party ideology, so that is ruled out!

So, the question remains – how will the AAP manage to find the requisite number of booth coordinators?

India More Corrupt Than Pakistan?

Yes, if you go by the data put out by Transparency International. They question they asked was whether the respondent had ever paid a bribe. In India, 54% said yes, while in Pakistan only 34% did. Sierra Leone tops the list with 84% of people claiming they’ve paid a bribe.

I was planning to not put any visualization, since the one on the BBC website (linked above) is pretty good, but then I thought it makes sense to show the illustrious company India has been put in according to this report.

Source: Transparency International
Source: Transparency International

Interestingly, if you look at their report, their sample size is consistent across countries. While they interviewed 1025 people in India, they interviewed 1000 in tiny Fiji. This means that the results for the larger countries in the survey should be taken with more salt than that of the smaller countries.

There is a lot more in the report (linked above). Do read it if you are more interested in this.

Criminals in politics

During the Anna Hazare show, skeptics said people shouldn’t randomly protest, they should come out and vote (for the record, people have voted in really large numbers in the recently concluded assembly elections). Hazaarists replied saying that there’s no point voting because every candidate is a crook, and they are all corrupt, or something to that effect. Then someone else popped up and said that criminals should not be allowed to contest for elections.

Now, there exists a law barring criminals from contesting elections. However, only people convicted of a criminal case can’t contest, not those who are under trial. The justification of this is that activities such as “riots”, “protests”, “dharnas”, etc. come under the criminal law and you can’t “obviously” bar people who take part in such “noble activities” from contesting. So you have people who have led noble dharnas contesting, as those who have been accused of committing rape or murder. Inclusive democracy, as they say.

What I don’t understand is what is so noble about holding protests, blocking roads and railways and holding entire population to ransom. I don’t understand why perpetrators of such crimes need protection, and are allowed to contest elections.

So I think one step in decriminalizing politics would be to bar people with a criminal case against them (not necessarily convicted) from contesting for polls. Of course we won’t put this law with retrospective effect, but it’ll apply to only new cases that might be filed against potential candidates from the date on which the law is notified. It would have welcome side effect that politicians would now think thrice before they decide to hold rallies that stop road and rail traffic and hold the mango man to ransom. And apart from potentially decreasing corruption, it would make our cities a much more peaceful place to stay in.

But I’m being impractical here. Who will bell the cat? Why would any politicians “act against themselves” and bring in such a law? Can some Hazaarists please stand up, or rather sit down in fast, for this, please?

Moron the corruption issue

Following my previous post and comments and countercomments and discussions on twitter and facebook and google groups and various other forums, I’ve been thinking about this whole corruption thing. Random thoughts. The kind that comes to you when you’re traveling across the city by auto on a hot summer day, watching the world go by.

Ok so this is for the people who claim that the supporters of Anna Hazare are a large enough group that they probably represent “most of the people”. If this were the case, we have a simple solution to corruption – all these worthies can band together in the form of an “anti corruption party” (when was the last time we had a political party being formed on a solid ideology?) and contest the next elections. And if they can work hard, and ensure that they keep up the kind of efforts they’ve started, they’ll soon be ruling us. And hopefully they’ll continue with their zeal and be actually able to eradicate corruption. (on my end, I promise that if a credible party gets formed with an anti-corruption stand, I’ll get over my NED, get myself registered as a voter and vote for them).

But there are reasons to doubt something like this will happen. A look at the list of nominal supporters Anna Hazare got suggests that a lot of people were there just to be seen and get footage, rather than really wanting to weed out corruption. Again, given the political spectrum across which Hazare’s supporters last week came from, it might not be that easy an idea to form this “anti-corruption party” that I suggested.

Thinking about it further, there is a scary thought – that a large part of our population is actually pro-corruption. And looking at the political parties across the spectrum, it doesn’t sound implausible. So if a large number of people are actually pro-corruption, what are we to do?

Let me put it another way. How many people do you think are really anti-corruption? On all fronts? How many people do you think exist in India who haven’t paid or received a single bribe, however small that might be? Basically I want to estimate the number of people who are against corruption of all kinds, and my sense is that this number is likely to be small indeed.

I think one needs to think about this further before actually figuring out how to weed out corruption. From what I’ve read so far the Lok Pal bill simply adds one extra protective layer, and am not sure of its effectiveness. More about this in another post.

Something’s Itching

  • Recently I read this joke, not sure where, which said that the American and Indian middle classes are feeling sad that they cannot take part in a revolution, unlike their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and other similar place. Instead, they can only vote
  • There needs to be some sort of an antitrust law for political parties. There is currently little to distinguish between the policies of various political parties. For example, all parties favour a greater role for the government (more govt => more opportunity to make money on the side => more corruption, etc.) .
  • Given the homogeneity in the political spectrum, there is little incentive to vote. This scoundrel may be only marginally better than that scoundrel, so why bother voting. So we have this large middle class which essentially removes itself from the political process (confession: I’m 28, and I’ve never voted. When my name’s in the list I’ve not been in town, and vice versa.)
  • Now this Anna Hazare tamasha has suddenly woken up people who never bothered to vote, and who are pained with excessive corruption. So they’re all jumping behind him, knowing that this gives them the opportunity to “do something” – something other than something as bland and simple as voting.
  • Supporters of Hazare care little about the implications of what they’re asking for. “Extra constitutional bodies”? “Eminent citizens”? Magsaysay award winners? Have you heard of the National Advisory Council? You seriously think you want more such institutions?
  • The Lok Ayukta isn’t as useless an institution as some critics have pointed out. But then again, this is highly personality-dependent. So you have a good person as a “lok pal”, you can get good results. But what if the government decides to appoint a compliant scoundrel there? Have the protesters considered that?
  • Basically when you design institutions, especially government institutions, you need to take care to build it in such a way that it’s not personality-dependent. Remember that you can have at TN Seshan as Election Commissioner, but you can also have a Navin Chawla.
  • So when you go out in droves and protest, you need to be careful what you ask for. Just make sure you understand that.

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