Politicians have an image problem in the world’s largest democracy. They are blamed for everything — airline crashes, poverty, terrorism, hunger, cricket scandals. They are lampooned in movies, stand-up comedies, and street plays. In opinion polls, they often rank lowest as youth icons and highest as those viewed as most corrupt.
Many Indians cling to the image of a frugal and bare-chested Mahatma Gandhi as the epitome of a politician, even as the burgeoning middle class experiences new wealth and conspicuous consumption.
So when a committee of federal lawmakers submitted a proposal recently seeking a fivefold pay increase, people were shocked. They bashed the idea in tweets, around the dinner table, and on TV. Some even praised the British, whose members of Parliament recently decided to trim their salaries in these uncertain economic times.
Indian lawmakers currently take home about $372 a month, an amount most say is embarrassingly low. If the raise goes through, they would make about $ 1,860 a month — a little less than the average IT graduate fresh out of college in the big city.
“We cannot forever be stuck in Gandhi’s image from the freedom movement. In comparison, people think we are all corrupt crooks looting the nation,’’ said Sanjay Nirupam, a Congress Party lawmaker from Mumbai, who wrote an op-ed in the Indian Express newspaper arguing for a raise.
Nirupam calls himself a “professional politician,’’ a near-blasphemous term in India.
“My expenses are enormous. About 200 people come to see me every day. I have to offer them all at least a cup of tea, or they will abuse me and call me a miserly politician,’’ Nirupam said. “Most of Mumbai’s politicians own beer bars to supplement their incomes.’’
But in a country where about 300 million people earn less than $1 a day, the thought of a politician enjoying a meal in a five-star hotel or traveling in luxury cars still rankles the masses.
“Our members of Parliament already enjoy VVIP status in India. They don’t serve us, they lord over us. They do no work, and most are already so corrupt that they do not deserve a salary hike,’’ said C.P. Rai, 71, a New Delhi resident who in the past three years has filed three queries about legislators’ salaries under the Right to Information law.
“All Pay, No Work,’’ an editorial in the Times of India said about the proposed raise. Lawmakers’ take-home pay might be low, the newspaper said, but the perks they enjoy — like free housing, health care, power, water, and air travel — add up to almost $88,372 annually.
Since May, lawmakers have also been exempt from paying tolls on national highways.
An analysis conducted last year by the Association for Democratic Reforms, an electoral watchdog group, found that of the 258 incumbent lawmakers who ran for reelection, the assets of more than half had risen between 100 percent and 9,100 percent during their five years in office. About 70 percent were millionaires.
In April, a Bangalore lawyer filed a public interest lawsuit in the high court challenging lifelong pensions for elected representatives.
“Politics is a high-stakes game in India. Each candidate spends millions in the election campaign. Where does all this money come from? If they already have all this money, why do they need more?’’ asked Trilochan Sastry, founder of the watchdog group. “If the ridiculous raise goes through, we should insist on some performance measures.’’
Some say that low salaries force lawmakers to depend on business interests and lobbyists to sustain their lifestyles.
“There is a lot of hypocrisy among Indians. They want young professionals to enter politics, but do not want them to be paid well,’’ said M.R. Madhavan, head of research at PRS Legislative Research, a group that tracks parliamentary practices.
But not all members of Parliament want more money.
Lawmakers from Communist parties, many of whom live in modest apartments and often carpool to work, told the prime minister that they do not want a big raise.
“The idea of leaders giving themselves a raise is inappropriate. There should be an independent body to decide this,’’ said D. Raja, a lawmaker from the Communist Party of India. “The raise should not appear to be exorbitant in the present economic conditions. Only then people will understand.’’
The bill will soon be introduced in Parliament, where it is expected to face little opposition.