Former Speakers are seeking special perks. And the Central government seems to be in a generous mood. According to former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma, as reported in the media on Monday, in-principle approval has been accorded to his proposal to extend the perquisites and privileges now reserved for former Presidents, Vice-Presidents, and Prime Ministers to former Speakers of the Lok Sabha. The rationale for seeking this largesse, if at all there is one, is that the Speaker is the only constitutional authority — Number Six in the Warrant of Precedence or the protocol list — who does not enjoy special perquisites after the conclusion of his or her term. Former Speakers, at present, are entitled “only” to pension and ordinary benefits that are also available to all former Members of Parliament. If anything, the argument should be for dropping or curbing the special perks which come with retirement from all constitutional posts and not for adding more former office-holders to the list. The reason high office comes with privileges is because they make it easier for the incumbent to do the job. Logically, therefore, the privileges of office should end with the term in office. This is the way it is in virtually every democracy. Of course, the state has a continuing duty to provide security, where threats exist, and secretarial assistance. But few countries barring India provide homes and motor cars to retired Presidents or Prime Ministers, let alone Speakers, for the rest of their lives.
President Pratibha Patil moved quickly and correctly to quell a snowballing controversy by foregoing the Pune retirement home which was to be constructed for her on land owned by the Defence Ministry. Rashtrapati Bhavan refuted what it said were “fallacious observations” about the home that had been made in the media. At the same time, ordinary people are inclined to see any special benefits extended to former constitutional functionaries as excessive. Though MPs and Ministers compare themselves with bureaucrats while seeking retirement benefits, government servants retire after 30 or more years of service, and not five years like MPs. If former Speakers are granted the privileges they reportedly are seeking, it would only be a matter of time before former Deputy Chairpersons of the Rajya Sabha or former Deputy Speakers of the Lok Sabha demand similar perks and benefits. And why should the poor Speakers of all our State Assemblies be left behind? The issue goes beyond the cost or scale of this exercise. At stake is a fundamental republican principle: that people holding constitutional office for limited terms ought not to enjoy special privileges once they retire.