I wrote last week about some of the arguments for and against increasing the salaries of members of Parliament. Since that blog was posted, there have been many developments, not all of them savoury.
MPs created a parliamentary storm over the Cabinet decision to defer the hike in their salaries and such was the power of their rhetoric to say nothing of their disruptive tactics that the government was forced to reconsider its position.
As of now, not only will MPs get the pay hike that the Cabinet was so reluctant to approve a week ago but they will also get an additional Rs 10,000 in earnings and allowances thanks to the efforts of Lalu Yadav who the government seems reluctant to offend.
I have discussed the rights and wrongs of the hike elsewhere so my concern in this blog is entirely different. I have been intrigued by the attitude of the media to the issue. By and large, the press has been unremittingly hostile.
Some of this is attributable to the widespread contempt that the educated middle class has for all politicians. Usually however, journalists do not necessarily share in this contempt because they have more in common, during their working days at least, with politicians who are their sources than they do with their readers who remain a distant amorphous mass. So journalists are reluctant to attack the political class or to join in the middle class politician-bashing.
Why have the rules changed this time around? My knee-jerk response is that this is one more example of reader-friendly journalism. The media are concerned with reflecting the views of their readers and with winning the approval of consumers. Given the depth of middle class sentiments on this issue, it is impossible for journalists to take a more charitable view of the demand for higher salaries and still retain the support of their readers and viewers.
It is not my case that journalists should reflect the views of their sources rather than the views of their readers. I make no value judgments on this issue. I merely present this as an observation of the way in which the media are changing. You may well ask that if this is true, that if middle class disdain is so strong, why the MPs have been so uncompromising in their demands for pay hikes and full of such a sense of self-righteous entitlement.
Do they not realise that public sentiment is against them? Don’t they care that people believe that they deserve no hike at all? The answers to those questions tell us something about the limits to the power of the Indian media. Most MPs and Ministers that I have spoken to are in favour of the hike. But many of them are indeed aware of public sentiment and therefore are reluctant to be very vocal in expressing their views. They care how the media regard them and they have no desire to upset readers and viewers.
On the other hand, there are many MPs who don’t really give a damn about the media or their views. These are parliamentarians who get elected from constituencies where the views of the middle class and of the media in general are entirely irrelevant.
Can it be a coincidence that the most vocal proponents of the demand for salary hikes have been the likes of Lalu and Mulayam Singh Yadav and their supporters?
These are people who don’t care about Hindustan Times editorials or Times Now debates. They know that their voters will neither read the editorials nor watch news channels. Their own elections will be decided on issues that are more primal and far more basic than a rise in the salary of parliamentarians.
These are the same people who did not care about middle class support for women’s reservation but worked assiduously to sabotage the bill, ignoring the abuse directed at them by the media.
Two conclusions emerge from the squabble over MPs’ salaries. The first is that the media are eager to reflect the views of their consumers. And the second is that their consumers are only a tiny minority of the Indian electorate. Until the middle class can swing elections, its power will be limited to TV debate shows.