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Why politics is India's most lucrative profession

By T N Ninan
Last updated on: April 13, 2009 19:39 IST
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So now we know that, while every fourth member of the Lok Sabha has a criminal record, virtually every member is a crorepati. Quite a few would even qualify for membership of the Business Standard Billionaire Club (those with assets of over Rs 1 billion, or Rs 100 crore). We also know that these standard-bearers of socialism (every political party has to swear to this creed if it wants to be registered with the Election Commission) have increased their wealth manifold in the last five years.

All this suggests a range of possible hypotheses: that politics is India's most lucrative profession, that those with criminal records make more money than honest tribunes of the people, that those who speak in the name of the poor and rail against capitalist excesses are actually plutocrats in mufti, that you can get fat on the "mammaries of the welfare state" (every member can ask for Rs 2 crore to be spent on his favourite project, every year; that's Rs 10 crore in a five-year term), that members can and do make money by asking questions in the House, that members can and do get offered money to vote in a particular way...All this is true even when you do not occupy ministerial office (which brings with it access to more mammaries), and though you have to spend campaign funds vastly in excess of what the law allows…

We should now take the next logical step. Every government employee should be asked to make similar disclosures, bearing in mind the latest story of the sub-inspector of police in Delhi who has accumulated assets worth Rs 30 crore, on a salary of Rs 30,000. And just so that government employees know what it is like to have the Central Bureau of Investigation on your tail, this hound dog should be asked to do a random check on all annual filings (more mammaries!). For, the truth is that our governments run vast armies of criminal gangs, which seem to be concentrated in places like the police and the tax-gathering machinery, but exist elsewhere too.

With one honourable exception (Jaswant Singh), hardly any finance minister has done anything to clean up these Augean stables; some of them have even increased the incentive for harassment by placing impossible revenue targets before officials and then cracking the whip, and by writing up the law in such a way that taxmen get extraordinary powers -- which become more mammaries to milk. At the last meeting of the CII National Council, companies complained behind closed doors about how they were being asked, on the strength of oral orders, to pay up more tax --  with the tax officials refusing to issue written tax demand notices!

The tragedy is that Jaswant Singh's attempt to have taxpayers treated fairly and with respect, and his appointment of Vijay Kelkar to recommend ways in which the business could be made less extortionate, have been nullified. After demanding that certain tax filings can only be done digitally, the tax department has made sure that the digital system does not work (so you are in the Kafkaesque situation of being required to do something under the law that the creators of the law will not allow you to do).

After mandating that tax evasion will be checked through the scrutiny of digital records, assessments done from a distance so as to minimise the human interface, and refund cheques automatically credited to bank accounts, tax officials do all the things that they have done for years, including waving refund cheques in your face and asking for a cut, not just for themselves but for their brother officers as well. It wouldn't hurt to have some sunlight thrown on all these murky areas.

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T N Ninan