Choosing the better outrage

Indian legislators need a wage hike

Cobrapost and Aaj Tak have demonstrated, yet again, how hidden-camera journalism can be employed to deliver sensational results. In strictly technical terms, the information content in the latest exposé is negligible. Most Indians will hardly be surprised that their politicians accept bribes. On the contrary, a sting operation that reveals an upright legislator throwing the bribing journalist out of the room would have contained more information, and perhaps have been more sensational.

The reason why Cobrapost’s sting operation has become sensational is because of the political controversy it has created — by getting some lawmakers expelled from their parties, and giving an opportunity for the relieved remainder to do a sanctimonious Captain Renault. In the short term, MPs will be extremely careful whom they take money from. But Operation Duryodhana will certainly not result in the end of corruption at the heart of Indian democracy.

That is because politicians, like everyone else, respond to incentives. For now, and perhaps for the next few years, they will have a disincentive to accept money from strangers. But the underlying incentives that cause them to be corrupt remain unchanged. Getting a party ticket and running a successful campaign is not cheap. Re-election is not guaranteed and coalition governments run the risk of not completing their five-year terms. Their salaries and allowances do not adequately cover the costs of running a campaign and representing a constituency. The upfront investment is huge and the period in which to generate returns is short. Official compensation is inadequate. The Indian parliamentarian is no different from the traffic policeman — the official remuneration they receive is far below the market value of the services they provide.

Beyond outrage, ombudsmen, rules of behaviour, penalties and sanctimony the only way to change the MPs’ behaviour is to change their incentives. Official wages, along with perks and the warm fuzzy feeling of doing one’s duty for the good of the nation are not sufficient to keep them away from seeking ways to ‘supplement their income’. The disincentives — like shame, prosecution and now an exposé on prime-time television — are neither powerful nor long-term. Legislation to limit campaign expenditure sounds nice, but is not practical. The real solution is more pay. Perhaps a lot more pay.

More pay, of course, sounds outrageous. But it is far better to be outraged by highly-paid politicians than by highly corrupt ones.

Update: There was, apparently, an upright MP who refused the moolah. But they’re not telling who.

18 thoughts on “Choosing the better outrage”

  1. http://in.rediff.com/news/2005/dec/13spec.htm

    See this news article in Rediff.com about the perks that MPs enjoy.

    I think if the Govt were to eliminate all perks, and monetise half of them, the MPs would each receive atleast close to 1 Lakh a month. I think no one can complain with that much amount of money.

    The tragedy is that we as citizens fork out so much as net payout to the legislators, and yet continue to hear stories about how underpaid they are. We need them to just shut up and do the job, honestly.

  2. Seriously speaking, the non monetary benefits that the MPs n MLAs enjoy are much more than any monetary compensation. Think of gratification that you get as an MP, when you are greeted with a gun totting security gaurd in this country and the social status of the-one-that-grants…
    I guess it is this priviledge that, the power of granting something that lies with the MPs, is what makes them corrupt. You take off the power to grant,(instead just give him the responsibility to facilitate granting) n all the corruption will go.

    As Yashwant sinha was telling yesterday in a private TV channel, that these questions seem to serve the larger national interest and so there can be some consideration for that!(he didnt use the word concession, but the way he had put it, seem to suggest so)…he denied subsequently, that he didnt mean concession.

    But, then the mere thought to have some consideration coz the issues were of national interest, smacks the level of probity that these politicans had run into in public life

  3. why did they chose to expose the BJP more than the ruling party Congress? Their explanation that they were’nt able to get middlemen for Congress is superficial IMO.

  4. Being an MP is quite a profitable business, there are enough venues to earn good money. People spend huge amounts just to get tickets to run in the elections, mainly because they know they’ll earn good ROI.

  5. I agree with on there not being enough incentive (for the “leaders” to work right), however I tend to agree with the folks above that the remuneration is not the issue here.

    I had written this post on changing the incentive structure for our babus, I wonder if we need something on those lines for our leaders as well.

  6. I do infact believe that the legislators are paid far below what is the fair pay for somebody with such fantatstic responsibilities that they have and so much of risk in terms of job continuity etc. I do have a problem though with the quality of legislators we elect to the parliament/state legislatures, and in terms of the capabilities of the legislators and what they have generally delivered in the last 58 years, maybe we have been paying them (or they have been paying themselves) far far too much.

    A lot of the fault does lie within us (and 100 crore mostly politically illiterate Indians) as we keep electing the same bad guys over and over again on the basis of political issues such as a stupid temple/mosque or our caste / their caste rather than development.

    The present issue of the 11 MPs however will blow over, maybe some of them will change parties and come back elected to the parliament again in subsequent elections, and who knows, one of them might become our next Railway Minister.

    The issue of corruption is really not connected with her/his pay (maybe a weak yes for a traffic cop, but to say that the same applies to an MP is absurd) but the person’s own integrity and what he thinks he can get away with in the society. India, unfortunately for its people has been too kind on its corrupt leaders.

  7. Krish,

    Although they receive it in non-monetary form, those perks actually have a monetary value which can be factored in to their ‘wage’ package. Even then, I would consider them underpaid — the evidence for this being their readiness to accept even a few thousand rupees as bribes.

    In general I find myself agreeable to the proposition that the ‘power to dispense’ needs to be minimised. It may work for bureaucrats or traffic cops, but not for MPs. Placing limits on the discretion of MPs cannot come without seriously damaging parliament as an institution.

    Prasanna,

    I think a well-designed remuneration package can help combat corruption. Not only does it create a disincentive for taking bribes, but also the fear of losing a well-paying job creates a powerful incentive not to lose it by behaving irresponsibly.

    Vimal,

    Isn’t it possible that you have low-quality legislators because those are the only people willing to do the job at the pay (and here, I include the entire package) you offer? If this principle applies in every sphere of everyday life, why shouldn’t it apply to legislators as well.

    But yes, a performance-based pay package is an interesting idea…allow their constituents to vote on their performance every year, and link this to their pay ๐Ÿ™‚ Tough one to implement though.

  8. The performance based idea can work. The government need not be involved. Samudai Bharati is developing ideas on this principle, which at present are rather perfunctionary, but such an idea holds promise.

    Also, all the non-monetary perks may amount to nothing if a particular legislator is not going to avail of them. Instead, we should move to giving the complete compensation as cash so that the legislator can decide how he/she would like to use the money.

  9. Nitin, agree with your take on the economics of bribery. We need to be more pragmatic about it. In the US the same bribery is labeled “campaign contributions”, legalized, and regulated. There is nothing wrong with lobbying through non-violent means. What we need is a more transparent system capable of channeling and democratising that lobbying. Relying on the character of individuals is a recipe for failure. The system must assume that everyone has his/her price and build around that assumption, rather than holding each respresentative to impossibly high standards.

    India’s growing in leaps and bounds not because of its government but inspite of it. Some poor suckers being caught with their pants down is more entertainment than the trigger for national soul-searching.

  10. I hope you were joking when you say, “The Indian parliamentarian is no different from the traffic policeman — the official remuneration they receive is far below the market value of the services they provide. ”

    People take bribes not because of economic incentive but because they can and can get away with it. When was the last time you heard one’s pay is enough – it is never enough because you always deserve more and there is always someone making more than you do.

    “The disincentives — like shame, prosecution and now expose on prime-time television — are neither powerful nor long-term.”

    I couldn’t disagree more with this statement. If this is true, then we are deep trouble because work ethic, culture, and rule of law dictates activities like bribery and taking short cuts in public and private services.

    Also, if the sole is reason for giving loads of cash to MPs is so that they can compete in elections, aren’t you putting a challenger in an inherit disadvantage? Pay should be based on service performed and cost of living and not on some future activities that an MP may or may not perform.

    If there were some sort of primaries than the state may fund election campaigning costs. But Indian political system is different with non-democratic top-down dictatorial parties. Most MPs are mediocre (there are major exceptions) with no social or economic agenda and are not interested in their constituents (most can’t even spend the two crores allotted to their constituency over one year period – I would spend it in a day). By and large are chosen (by guys in New Delhi) because of caste or religious politics (remember the caste/sub-caste based candidates list that Congress I prepared for Bihar elections). Economic incentives are the last thing that will change these moronic MPs behavior.

  11. cynical nerd,
    Please note the expose was on a news channel(Aaj Tak)that is run by “India Today” group which is openly pro-BJP.

  12. Nitin,

    I agree that a well-designed remuneration package – that rewards performance (something I think that should be given to the Babus as well) is required.
    But I disagree that it should instantly mean a pay hike for the leaders as it is now (which is what I understood from your main post)

    The current structure is such that the only disincentive for not working for their constituency, for not being honest is losing an election(at worst) to perhaps being thrown out from a party.

    Also, there is very little incentive to be seen as actually working for their constituency in most places – or for being upright.

    Surely something on the lines of what a Sales rep gets for his performance should be of the order. IMO, almost the entire govt has to change their pay-scales to include variable/performance based pay in it.

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