A typical trait of recently returned non-resident Indians (NRIs) is that they continue to avidly follow the latest happenings in the country they left— whether it is Super Bowl scores, the latest plot lines in EastEnders or declining property prices in Dubai. As a recent returnee to India after living in the UK for at least 12 years, this author has been closely following the single biggest story in the British media over the past 10 days—namely, the unprecedented exposé of the expense claim abuses of British members of Parliament (MPs).
British MPs are entitled to tax-free reimbursements for expenses that are “wholly, exclusively and necessarily incurred for the purpose of performing Parliamentary duties”. For the past five years, authorities have fiercely guarded the privacy of MPs’ expense claims, even considering legislation to exclude them from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Over the past two weeks, The Daily Telegraph has blown the lid off how numerous MPs across parties have been systematically exploiting a loosely policed, self-regulated system of allowances. The expense claims ranged from mundane items (toilet seats, pots of yoghurt, carrier bags, bed linen, bath plugs, a lemon), to services for maintaining moats, gardens, chandeliers and swimming pools at country estates. The more serious allegations are related to exploiting loopholes in the now notorious “second home allowance” at taxpayers’ cost—avoiding capital gains tax on profits made on sale of such properties—and, for at least two MPs, continuing to claim interest payments on properties even after the mortgage was paid off.
The scandal has generated a national outrage in the UK, from a population that is reeling under the effects of a full-blown recession. Heads will inevitably roll as the matter snowballs into a full constitutional crisis. The Speaker of the House of Commons was forced out of office last week for providing inadequate leadership in policing the defunct expenses system for MPs. Several MPs are expected to stand down at the next general election that is due in less than a year.
In the same week, India returned a popular government with the most decisive mandate in the past 17 years, at the end of a protracted and largely peaceful electoral process. The Indian electorate demonstrated its ability to grasp the big picture and deliver a decisive mandate for stability and continuity, as a prerequisite for development and economic growth. The results have created an unprecedented surge in optimism and confidence among the business community, that has high expectations of the new administration. The results also signalled the start of a process of passing the baton to a new generation of political leaders.
Last week was, thus, arguably a watershed for the two countries: the largest democracy in the world, and the mother of all modern parliamentary democratic systems.
It is heartening to see that people still care about personal integrity, honesty and probity in public life. There was something deliciously British about the public outrage vented in measured language in The Daily Telegraph’s readers’ letters. Many castigated the MPs for bringing the parliamentary system into disrepute, as much as for helping themselves liberally to the cookie jar. India, on the other hand, re-elected a government led by a prime minister with unquestionable personal integrity, and saw the defeat of several so-called “musclemen” and their kith and kin.
We can by no means gloss over the ubiquitous presence of corruption in Indian public life. Indian politicians are in a different league when it comes to using public office for personal aggrandizement. It is not the purpose of this article to delve into sordid details. In comparison, the taxpayer-funded toilet seats, fluffy cushions and tennis courts of British MPs look positively Sunday school stuff.
What was in sharp contrast between the two countries was the big picture. Britain is in the grip of a severe recession, and the government is patently short of big ideas for turning around the state of the economy and shoring up employment. Last week’s news has hinted at the unthinkable—the UK may lose its AAA sovereign credit rating status due to the high levels of its public debt. Yet, for close to two weeks, the government’s efforts at tackling the economy have been relegated to the background by the expenses scandal.
The majority of Indians face numerous challenges in their day-to-day existence, widening social and economic disparities, corruption in the administrative and political system. Yet, the electorate hasn’t lost its trust in the political and democratic system. It ushered in an administration that was seen to have the best grasp of stability and continuity at a national level, giving it an unprecedented mandate for both growth and stability.
Bottom line: a democratic government whose credibility in steering the ship of state is in question will find itself more buffeted by circumstances. The public intuitively knows when a government has a sound grasp of the big picture and when it doesn’t. In the backdrop of the economic downturn, where a scandal has resulted in calls for an overhaul of the entire British political system, India delivered a remarkable mandate, but with a less-than-perfect democratic machinery.
Suvojoy Sengupta is partner, Booz & Co., India. Views expressed here are personal. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org