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October - November 2009

Political News

Without Fear or Favour: Comments on Current Issues

by Satjit Singh

Pay peanuts – get monkeys

Once again the issue of MPs expenses raised its ugly head. Alan Duncan, a member of the shadow cabinet was castigated because he was secretly filmed saying that MPs were being treated badly after the expenses scandal and “have to live on rations”. The press, unions and senior Labour party officials joined in the condemnation. Mr Cameron, not wishing to be lagging in the condemnation stakes said, “Alan made a bad mistake and he acknowledges that.” He added that MPs had to “demonstrate completely” that they understood public anger over expenses. Mr Duncan has since been demoted, enabling Mr. Cameron to claim the high moral ground vis-à-vis Gordon Brown.

This is now a full fledged witch hunt. We have done bankers and now it is the turn of MPs. Have we stopped to even consider what an MP earns and their worth? Comments such as paying them the ‘average wage’ and even ‘minimum wage’ have been bandied about. For those who do not know it, and I suspect many readers don’t, the average wage in the UK, based on a forty hour week is twenty five thousand pounds, whilst the minimum wage is twelve thousand. After tax this equates to a weekly take home of approximately four hundred pounds and two hundred respectively. Assuming the higher figure, without expenses, these MPS, most of whom have to maintain both a constituency home and one near Westminster, would be in negative territory just for rent, council tax and utilities, never mind, food, clothing, travel and other expenses associated with bringing up a family. In addition, MPs are often asked to and expected to contribute to charities. How many of us are prepared to do this i.e. pay out more than we earn just to keep the job; so if we are not prepared to do it, why do we expect our parliamentarians to?

Secondly, the average wage is earned by fairly junior employees in organisations. I do not mean this unkindly, but to put it in perspective, the average tube driver takes home in excess of fifty thousand pounds annually i.e. twice the wage that some advocate we pay our MPs. Even their current wage of some sixty five thousand pounds, grossly undervalues their worth and work. Most MPs work a sixty hour week, including constituency surgeries, but excluding the myriad functions that they feel obliged to turn up to. Based on this, they earn some £20.00 per hour. A high street agency would not send out a temporary secretary for that wage! Most MPs are highly educated, have a strong intellect, presence and highly developed leadership skills. For many of them, earning £150,000 per annum in industry would not be difficult. By agreeing to work for a fraction of that amount, they are demonstrating their desire for public service. Of course being an MP is a great ego trip; however, I’m not sure it compensates for what they have to do in their jobs, never mind that most of them live away from their families for 3-4 days a week.

I fully understand the public anger against ‘Expensegate’. However, this is all this has arisen because we did not properly address the issue of better salaries for MPs when it was discussed some years ago. It was ducked and instead, a complex system of expenses was introduced. MPs accordingly operated within the framework in place and so can be forgiven for being perplexed and hard done by when all they were doing was play by the rules. Of course instances of breaking the law must be investigated and where appropriate, prosecuted. For the rest, in the absence of a better and fairer system, MPs must be allowed to claim what is due to them. Haranguing them through sensational press reporting, which in turn has in many cases, led to lynching by constituents, is both unseemly and unfair.

It is time we understand the cost of our democracy. If we want hard working, articulate parliamentarians, we need to pay for them. Otherwise, we will get one of two types of MPs: the first who are of private means and who may or may not treat this role with the appropriate seriousness. Also this would mean that those without private means are excluded; certainly not a desirable outcome, especially if we are trying to enrich our parliament by attracting people from a wide range of experience and backgrounds. The second category would be those who, to put it kindly, do not have the talent to succeed at that level. I for one would not want my MP to be someone who would struggle to hold a middle ranking job in most organisations.

Democracy is serious business for serious people. Trivialising it by bickering over what are relatively small sums of money, we run the risk of undermining it. In countries where this is so, corruption is rife. On the whole our parliamentarians are honest, hard working and exhibit great integrity. Before we snigger at this statement, perhaps we should look at elected politicians in America or even closer home in Italy, never mind in countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Need I say more?

Winning the war for peace

I have been following with interest, the furore amongst the Indian political elite and the press about the perceived ‘softening of the Indian government’s approach to Pakistan’. Even the ruling Congress Party’s spokesman, Western educated (St. Stephen’s College, Cambridge and Harvard universities) Abhishek Singhvi, could not get himself to defend the Prime Minister’s statement following the talks with his Pakistani counterpart at Sharm-el Sheikh in Egypt. The hard-line, right-wing main Opposition party, the BJP, was delighted with this offering and in its customary role as the irresponsible opposition, did its trademark walk-out of parliament and resorted to name calling, accusing the Prime Minister of a sell-out, calling the Egypt declaration ‘an historic blunder’.

I believe that the Indian political and press elite is misguided at best, with the reaction of the BJP even treasonous; I choose my words carefully.

An American General once remarked that people are capable of and do take, extraordinary risks for war, unmindful of their personal safety and well-being; if only they did the same for peace, the world would be a better and safer place. The same is true of Indo-Pak relations. There have been votes in talking and acting tough on both sides of the border and that has been a barrier to peace. The BJP, for whom minority bashing (mainly Muslims and Christians) is its stock-in-trade, has been a major reason why progress has not been possible. Likewise elements in the Pakistani Army and intelligence services have ensured that the bogeyman of India is alive and kicking in Pakistan.

Nearer home, Margaret Thatcher thundered about not giving the IRA terrorists the ‘oxygen of publicity’, saying that the British government would never talk to terrorists. What resulted was years of continuous terrorism with no end in sight. It took the courage of her successor John Major and the assiduous and relentless efforts of Tony Blair to negotiate with the Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and with their counterpart Unionists to achieve the peace in Northern Ireland. Concessions were offered that offended many; convicted murderers walked free and financial incentives given to them to lay down their arms, yet the prize at stake was bigger than all that. This peace was neither achieved by thunderous soundbites nor the refusal to talk to all concerned. In fact, the British government opened negotiations when terrorism was at its peak. The difference in approaches of Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe to their former colonisers and repressors has been the difference in fortunes of South Africa and Zimbabwe respectively. It is unfortunate that some Indian politicians have not learnt from history; what they do not realise is that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Rubbing Pakistani noses in the dust is counter-productive. There has been more progress by Pakistan on pursuing terrorists during the past few months, than in the previous three decades. It would have been a mistake of unacceptable proportions, if the Indian Government, in its pursuit for some cheap popularity with its rabble-rousing constituencies, had shown its inflexibility. Living in China taught me that giving ‘face’ to your enemies is more likely than anything else to achieve one’s goals; the reverse is also true. I believe that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh showed both sagacity and strength in dealing with Pakistan and I for one, am delighted that he resisted the calls of petty politicians and commentators whilst doing this. That is leadership. It is the weak-minded and those short on character, which follow the rabble. A leader takes people where they want to be; a great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to be, but ought to be. That is the Indian Prime Minister’s contribution to India.

I have previously argued in these columns that the BJP is an anti-national party; its agenda is not to promote India. Quite the reverse, it exists to break up India and seeks to do this by building ‘narrow domestic walls’. Its members are rabid fundamentalists and rabble rousers. It is incumbent upon all right-thinking Indians, to resist them and ensure that the BJP does not succeed. The leadership of the BJP is committed to securing a small, ideologically-aligned India with clear blue water between them and the rest. The aam aadmi (ordinary man) rejected their divisive politics at the last elections, but they do not seem to have understood this.

Democracy is popularly defined as ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’; the implication of this being that democratically elected governments represent not just the will of the people but reflect their thinking and aspirations. However, as we witness so often, that is not always the case. The ordinary Indian is not bigoted; sadly some sections of the Indian political and press elites have yet to grasp this.

The ban – it stinks

The decision by the Gujarat government to ban Jaswant Singh’s book “Jinnah-India, Partition, Independence” brought back memories of the banning of Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”. Mr Modi, the BJP Chief Minister of Gujarat state, justified it on grounds that it contained some objectionable comments against Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the Home Minister credited with ensuring the accession to the Indian state of the various princely states. Further, Mr Singh also apparently praised Mr Jinnah, a bogeyman in India for being responsible for its partition. Irrespective of the merits of Mr. Jaswant Singh’s case against Sardar Patel or indeed for Mr Jinnah, the ban cannot be justified.

Before I make the case against censorship, let us examine Mr Jaswant Singh’s credentials. Far from being a left-leaning liberal, Mr Singh is a retired army officer who joined the rightwing hardline Hindu party, the BJP; holding with distinction, three of the most senior offices of state i.e. Defence, Foreign Affairs and Finance. Unlike his other BJP colleagues however, he is not strident, preferring instead a more reflective approach. It is this lack of street fighter qualities so beloved of the BJP that has got him into trouble. Ironically, the man who has sanctioned Mr Singh’s expulsion from the party is none other than its parliamentary leader L.K. Advani, who four years ago was stripped of this role, because he had dared to suggest during a visit to Karachi, that Jinnah was secular in his thinking. Sadly, irony is not an Indian trait and Advani is no exception.

Banning the book is censorship pure and simple; in democracies this is invoked as a last resort. India, on the whole, has a proud record of allowing freedom of speech, as long as it neither inflames any situation especially in respect of inter-religion tensions nor has any national security implications. Neither case applies here. The last time a ban of any significance was imposed was the when the Satanic Verses made the headlines. The unseemly sight of ignorant, illiterate frenzied mobs burning Rushdie’s book, was offensive to most. On that occasion those virulently protesting and calling for a ban had not read it; on this occasion too, that is the case. I did not agree with that ban, but at least on that occasion, I could see why the Indian government, in the interests of maintaining law and order and not inflaming religious passions, decided to do so. I was disappointed then; I am outraged now.

The reason is two-fold. Firstly, I believe that Mr Singh’s expulsion from the BJP was driven less by any criticisms of Sardar Patel and more by the fact that a senior BJP politician had dared to praise Jinnah. That is sad. In this day and age when we are grappling with fundamentalist threats in India and internationally, one expects one’s leaders to show statesmanship. Sadly this trait seems to have ended in the BJP with Mr. Vajpayee. I recall an instance when Mr Vajpayee, representing the Jana Sangh, a predecessor organisation to the BJP, and the newly elected Foreign Minister in the 1977 Janata Party government, was asked at a press conference at the Press Club of India, whether he advocated the destruction of Pakistan. He responded in Hindi with a smile and said, “Mahoday, shaayad aap bhool gaye hain, ki hum ab vipaksh ke neta nahin hain”. Translated this means, “I think sir, you forget that I am no longer in the Opposition!” During his tenure Indo-Pak cricket matches were restarted and he also made a visit to China, the first by an Indian cabinet minister since the 1962 war.

Secondly, book bans for political purposes only happen when those imposing them have run out of any intellectual capacity or rational argument. In a country that has produced thinkers and writers like Kalidas and Tagore, this is insulting to its citizens. Indians have never taken to loss of liberties and they are not about to now. When Mrs Gandhi imposed a state of emergency in 1975, the public showed its disapproval and took the opportunity to inflict a humiliating defeat on her at the next general election in 1977.

The tension between free speech and banning books is an ancient one. However, as Johann Lorenz Schmidt cautioned in relation to Censorship in Eighteenth-Century Germany, “Confiscating a book and punishing its author is a sign that one does not have a good case, or at least doesn’t trust it enough to defend it with reasons and refute the objections.”

Through the years, I have reveled in India’s ability to allow a plurality of views to exist on virtually everything. The Communist Party in Bengal opposes economic reform and yet it gets a mandate in its state, the BJP has a philosophy which is anathema to many, yet others happily vote for it; this diversity is both a sign of and testimony to India’s strength, just as is its secularism. There is no suggestion that the Central government, just because it is of a different political persuasion, should ban these parties unless of course they were engaged in anti-national activities. Even then, it should be the law that takes its course, not the whims of those in power.

Finally, I would like to remind those apologists for the book ban of what Heinrich Heine, the 19th century poet and philosopher said “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”

Surely that is not our next step?

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