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How personal wealth shapes political lives | Opinion – columns


British Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson has said that he plans to resign from his post. The reason for this is not that he is on a politically slippery slope but that he cannot survive on the salary and allowances he gets as PM. He feels that he can earn much more through lectures and writing.

Just for the record, Johnson earns £150,402 in salary and perks, or close to ₹1.45 crore a year. According to Johnson, he is financially strapped since he has six children. According to the divorce agreement with ex-wife Marina Wheeler, with whom he has four children, he has to pay a hefty alimony. His salary, as it is now, is not enough to cover the education needs of all his children. Before becoming leader of the Conservative Party, he earned £275,000 a year from The Telegraph. An additional two lectures a month would bring in another £160,000. Apparently, he misses those days and wants to return to them.

His predecessor, Theresa May, probably serves as some motivation to him. She earned millions through speeches and writing just a year after resigning. Tony Blair is another former PM who has had a thriving career on the lecture circuit. Many of them get lucrative consultancies after demitting office with big corporations and foreign governments. There was a time when politicians used to step down from office and take time off to reflect on issues. No longer. Now people want to know the secrets of decision-making at the top, which is most plausible coming from those who were in positions of great power.

People in leadership roles have a lot to say once they move beyond the limitations of the constitutional oath of office and secrecy. May is just one example. The recollections of United States (US) presidents about their time in office are highly sought after. It is four years since Barack Obama left office, but he continues to be one of the most expensive speakers on the circuit. Even before Obama became President, he used to pull in a lot of money as a writer.

While Obama left office with dignity and grace, Bill Clinton left his post under a cloud. But that has not stopped him from earning from various engagements. His autobiography My Life sold over 2.25 million copies from which he earned about $200 million. He and his wife, Hillary Clinton, had made over $153 million from 729 lectures until Hillary’s presidential run. Lectures and books account for about 60% of the Clintons’ total earnings.

It has not always been like this. Ronald Reagan, who was a successful president, came in for much opprobrium when he entered the lecture circuit. After completing his stint at the White House, he went on a speaking tour in Japan. He was apparently paid $2 million for two 20-minute speeches and a few public appearances. He became the target of fierce criticism in the media and among American intellectuals. As a result, Reagan swore that he would no longer be part of any public lecture circuit.

This trend is now gaining momentum in India. It is a different matter that we have a dearth of politicians who can give insightful and interesting lectures. Most of them do not need this to earn money. Their income tax returns bear witness to the fact that once they enter politics, it does not take long for their wealth to increase dramatically. One reason could be that many of them are what can be called career politicians, unlike say Bill Clinton or Blair who are accomplished lawyers by profession and who went into politics later.

Let us take a look at Bihar where assembly elections are round the corner. Data released by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) claims that about 60% of candidates from the two main alliances are millionaires. They have assets ranging from ₹1 crore to ₹60 crore. Not just this, on the basis of affidavits given to the Election Commission last year, ADR stated that 439 Members of Parliament in the current Lok Sabha are crorepatis.

But let me be clear. There is nothing wrong in millionaires entering Parliament and state legislatures, provided they make sincere efforts to increase the wealth of the people who elected them and try and usher in a level playing ground. But India ranks 94th in the Global Hunger Index out of 107 countries and its per capita income is ₹1.35 lakh annually. More than 250 million people live below the poverty line. It should also be remembered that a person who spends ₹32 a day is not considered poor by our government. With this amount of money, a person cannot have two square meals a day.

What about the needs of citizens on the health and education front? India’s case is different from the West and the US where the gap between the wealth of political leaders and the people is not so stark. Our people are poor and our representatives are rich. And that is why it seems unlikely that too many of our politicians will think on the same lines as Johnson.

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan

The views expressed are personal

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