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Saturday, May 18, 2002

This week the Indian Parliament completed 50 years of its existence. While we had central legislature during British times, the bulk of membership was nominated. In 1946, elections were conducted to the central legislature, but franchise was limited, and only a fraction of the adult population could vote. The first Lok Sabha election of the Indian republic under the new Constitution was held in 1952.

In any democratic society, the legislatures represent the will of the people. Membership of a legislature is an opportunity to serve the people and an honour. But the people are the ultimate sovereigns, and legislators are our servants. Legislators do not enjoy high salaries or perks. In certain states in the US, the legislature meets only once in two years.  People hardly know who their state legislator is. There is no fanfare or publicity.

In the US, most people are reluctant to accept public office because of low salaries and high sacrifice involved. Highly talented and successful people are cajoled to join the cabinet, and often leave office after a few years to resume their normal careers and jobs. In Sweden, some years ago a cabinet minister resigned because he could not withstand the financial rigours imposed by high public office. He had no home in Stockholm, the national capital, and had to either commute several hours a day from home to work by public transport, or drive his own car. He could not afford a chauffer and the government did not provide one. So, he quit to resume his career! In the UK, the idea of public service is deeply ingrained in society. It is an honour to join the civil service or armed forces or politics, and many individuals cheerfully give up bright careers to join them.

Since 1952, we have had regular elections to Lok Sabha (with a brief and shameful delay during emergency, when the election due in 1976 was postponed). State legislatures too had regular elections except when president's rule was imposed under Article 356. Despite these external appearances of a democratic polity, the spirit of public service is dwindling. Legislative office is seen as a source of pelf, privilege, patronage, petty tyranny and plain nuisance value. Most legislators have no independent careers or identifiable sources of income. Politics has become big business. Once a person is elected as a legislator even at the state level, money is no longer the problem. Miraculously, in most cases a middle class family becomes fabulously rich over the next five years!

Distinguished citizens and bright people with successful careers are repelled by politics. Only those with family connections make it a hereditary business. Many rich people take to politics either as an ego trip or to safeguard and multiply their riches. Musclemen enter legislatures to protect themselves against police investigation, and indeed to control the police.

The golden jubilee of Parliament will soon be followed by that of the State Assemblies. This is the time for honest introspection. Decent and concerned citizens should be attracted to legislatures and crooks and incompetent persons should be discouraged. This needs major political reforms, particularly in the way elections are held. Politicians who benefit from status quo will never change things on their own. We, the people, have a stake in the process. We need to wake up and take notice of what is happening, and get together to change the nature of politics. Only then will politics of plunder will yield place to politics of service.

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