The new ruler-servant equation

The sound and light show I saw a few years back at Red Fort ended with Jawaharlal Nehru’s address to citizens of India the day it became independent. Nehru said he is the foremost servant of the people of India. Sixty-five years after Nehru made this proclamation, it became worthy of consideration during Anna Hazare’s agitation against corruption. Hazare said that the people of India have the right to examine the conduct of legislators because ‘ham malik hain, wo hamare naukar hain’ (we, the people of India, are the masters; the people we elect to legislatures are our servants).

Till independence, the people of India had experienced the rule of only kings, queens, monarchs, royal dynasties and their representatives. The political reality of India did not change when the British gave the power to India.

The reality is that legislators in free India have been the masters of people. Democracy in India has given people a new set of rulers. It has not made people rulers as it should have. The rulers in democratic India have been just like royal rulers. The names and forms of royalty changed and become democratic, but in all practical ways royalty with all its accompaniments, including the stranglehold of ruling dynasties, never left India. Democracy in India is not at all what Nehru spelt it out as.

Money often determines the nature and stature of things in real terms. Just the income and expenses of legislators and common people show who the masters and servants are. Cold numbers so obviously and shockingly rip off pretences at times that they can actually chill and numb. An RTI inquiry revealed that each plate of dinner at UPA-II government’s third anniversary celebrations at the prime minister’s residence in May last year cost Rs 7,721. The total expense of the party was Rs 28,95,503. Of this, Rs 26,444 was spent on flowers.

That means about 34 per cent of people in rural areas, whose monthly income keeps them below the poverty line (BPL) for the Planning Commission, will have to toil almost a year to afford a plate of the celebratory government dinner. A rural BPL person’s work of 3 years and 3 months will generate the amount that went into flowers that day. And the amount spent on the party will come from his earnings over 359 years. The average life expectancy at birth in India is about 70 years. The Right to Education Act makes education compulsory till that age of 14. So, at least officially, we cannot consider a person to be working till he is 14. I will make the extreme assumption that a person works every day for about 55 years from the age of 15 till his death.In that case a poor rural person will take about 6.5 lifetimes to earn what the government spent in a day of party. About 21 per cent of people in urban India are poor or BPL. A poor urban person will have to work nine months for a dinner plate, 2 years and 7 months for the flowers and 276 years to have the money for the party. His work over 5 lifetimes will give him the money to have the party.

The Planning Commission says a person is poor if he earns Rs 28.65 a day (Rs 859.50 a month) or less in cities and Rs 22.42 a day (Rs 672.60 a month) or less in rural areas. As per this poverty line, about 30 per cent of India was poor in 2009-10. The poverty cut-off of the Planning Commission is too cruelly close to starvation. The life of the poor does not look much better even with the more real figures of the National Sample Survey for 2009-10 quoted by a newspaper in April this year. They say that in urban India, about 67 per cent of people are poor because they earn less than Rs 66.10 a day or Rs 1,983 a month and in rural India, about 65 per cent are poor because they earn less than Rs 35.10 a day or Rs 1,053 a month. For one, these figures show that even in the eyes of the Rs 7,721-a-plate-dinner-happy government, every rupee, nay, every paisa counts when it comes to the life of the poor of India.

Let’s move now to MPs. Apart from salary, MPs get benefits under the heads of accommodation, travel, medical facilities, water charges, constituency allowance, office, telephone, internet, furniture, electricity and daily allowances. An August 2010 newspaper report monetized all these and found that an MP costs the nation more than Rs 37 lakh a year. That means a Planning Commission poor rural person will have to work 458 years or more than 8 lifetimes and a poor urban person 359 years or about 6.5 lifetimes to earn what an MP gets every year as salary and benefits.

Nehru talked about the prime minister leading legislators in serving people. If any doubts remain about the direction democracy in India has taken, the figures above can remove them. The statistics today seal the case of Indian democracy.

Amit Shekhar is a senior journalist and columnist
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