Thursday, 11 August 2016

Politics is a very lucrative profession in India

(From Devendra Narain's Memoirs)

Politics is a very lucrative profession in India


I googled to enlighten myself about the most lucrative profession, at least in India. I was disappointed when I found that the lists compiled by knowledgeable persons did not include what I was looking for. In my opinion, at least in India, politics is the most lucrative profession. The late American President Ronald Reagan once said that “Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realise that it bears a close resemblance to the first.” (There is no need to remind readers what is considered to be the first). We have numerous ‘rags to riches’ stories in this profession. If one is not lucky enough to be born in a dynasty, only ‘venture capital’ needed is some sort of ‘adventure’ which could be in any form: muscle power, lung power, shifting was ready to established power centres, etc. etc.

One thing common among all those who practice this profession is denial that politics is their profession. More than 30 years ago, an IAS officer working at the level of joint secretary to the Government of India resigned from service. When his shocked well-wishers wanted to know the reason, he said very humbly: “Enough of self-service. Henceforth I will devote my life to social service.”  Within two years he reached the Parliament (the Rajya Sabha, to be precise), the cherished destination of all those doing ‘social service’ in India. Subsequently he attained higher level of ‘social service’; he served as central minister for several years.

 Most of our politicians claim to be social workers. On perusal of the profile of our ‘Hon’ble’ MPs, I found that more than 60% of them are either full-time or part-time ‘social workers’. The Western democracies are not blessed by so many ‘social workers’ in their parliaments. On the perusal of the profile of the elected representatives in Great Britain, I could find only about half a dozen ‘social workers’. In the USA the number was even less: only two in the House of Representatives.

I do not agree with Shakespeare who said that “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  The name makes all the difference. ‘Social service’ sounds very pious. It puts one on a higher pedestal. If the same person says that his profession is politics, I am sure, most of the people, from media to intellectuals to common people, would not show the same respect.

But more than 45 years ago when I was as an assessing officer in the income tax Department, I had opportunity to deal with a member of the Lok Sabha who claimed that politics was his ‘profession’. In his income tax return he claimed deduction of expenses incurred on contesting election to the Lok Sabha from his professional income as Member of the Parliament. The intention was to save taxes. Before coming to the Lok Sabha he was a well-known legal practitioner and by the time I took up his case, he was a junior law Minister.

At that time salary of a member of Parliament or state legislature was taxed under the head ‘salary’. That was a good enough reason to reject his claim. But being young I was also adventurous and often invited confrontation. I sent him a letter in which I gave one more reason for rejecting his claim. I wrote – I am not justifying what I wrote – that ‘so far I was under the impression that politicians enter the august House of People (Lok Sabha) to serve the people. Now for the first time I have been told that politics is not social service but a profession, like any other profession, to earn money.’ I did not want to sound arrogant so I did not write that he might have been a lawyer but I was trained in tax laws, that before joining the IRS, had studied political science, had taught at post-graduate level and had co-authored a text book on the Indian Constitution.

The Hon’ble junior law minister did not take my letter sportingly. He got angry – as his private secretary informed me – and sent a complaint to the Finance Minister. Luckily for me, no one asked for my explanation.  He as well as some other MPs also took the stand that they could not be taxed under the head ‘salary’ because they were not employees of any one.

The government accepted their  claim and, without amending the Income Tax Act, an executive circular was issued that the salary of MPs/MLAs/MLCs would be taxed under the head ‘Other Sources’ of income. It is another matter that according to Article 79 of the Constitution, the Parliament consists of “the President and two Houses” and the President’s salary is still taxed under the head ‘Salary’.   Various allowances paid to the MPs were already exempt from income tax. The above circular exempted all their perquisites also from income tax. The Act under which a member of Parliament gets salary is still known as “The Salary, Allowances and Pension of Members of Parliament Act”. On his part, the ‘Hon’ble’ Minister quietly dropped his claim.

      What do you say? Is politics a profession, a lucrative profession, or social service?

Devendra Narain
April 4, 2016