For the past few days at the Rajasthan Assembly, in a room adjacent to that of opposition leader Gulab Chand Kataria, a box has been sitting under one of the tables. Inside the box are new iPhone 13s.
The seemingly innocuous box is at the center of aggressive political one-upmanship in Rajasthan. On February 23, after Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot tabled the state budget, MPs received the phones in the budget bags given to them as they walked out. It was after some time, when Gehlot’s populist budget dominated headlines, as well as photos of the phones circulating on social media, that the BJP announced that its MPs would return the phones.
BJP State Chairman Satish Poonia tweeted the same saying, “After discussions between Opposition Leader Gulab Chand Kataria, Deputy Opposition Leader Rajendra Rathore and other MPs, it has been decided that all BJP MPs will return the iPhone donated by the Congress government given the financial burden on the state.The average market price of an iPhone 13 is over 85,000 rupees.
State Congress Speaker Govind Singh Dotasra said while the BJP wanted to give the impression that this was a united decision, it was taken “by only three people”. “It’s dikhave ki rajneeti (performing art). If they wanted to return the phones, they should have done so on the spot.
Parliamentary Affairs Minister Shanti Dhariwal said the returned phones will go back to the Finance Ministry, which prepares and distributes budget briefcases to MPs each year, this year containing the iPhones.
By Saturday, Kataria said, 46 BJP MPs had submitted the phones to his office. In the 200-member assembly, the BJP has 71 deputies. “About seven to eight BJP MPs are absent due to personal issues so they haven’t even received the phones. Others returned to their ridings after Budget Day and will return the phones later. We will submit all such phones to the Secretary of the Assembly,’ he told the Sunday Express.
Kataria said that apart from the cost to the national treasury, the government had failed to keep the BJP informed of his whereabouts. “Usually when such a thing is done, the president brings it to us and they (Chief Government Whip Mahesh Joshi and others) discuss it with us, and the matter is decided by consensus.”
He said his aide picked up the budget bag on his behalf. “So I didn’t know about the phone until later. Otherwise, I would have opposed it on the spot… This is the first time that a “gift” has been offered in this way. And what good is such an expensive gift?
Ironically, some disgruntled BJP MPs also accuse the party leadership of acting without consensus. A BJP lawmaker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “The decision to return the phones could have been taken after building consensus in a Vidhayak Dal meeting. In the House, we are supposed to debate the budget. And that budget, I was told, was downloaded to the phone and no hard copies were given to us except for the budget speech from the CM.
The state budget documents have been made available on the Apple App Store as well as the Google Play Store by the state government.
“The question is who made the decision and in which forum? You summon the deputies twice a day; you could have called the members back and discussed it. Who would have disagreed? added the deputy.
Asked about this, Kataria replied, “Such discussions are not mandatory in Vidhayak Dal meetings. Earlier, the government had announced apartments for MPs. This too was not discussed by the Vidhayak Dal.
The Congress government defends the gift as moving with the times. “We are moving towards digitalization and dematerialization (governance). So we donated (computers, phones) to promote it,” Chief Whip Joshi said, adding: “Not just MPs, the government has announced smartphones, with three-year internet connectivity, for women at the head of families of 1.33 crore.
Dotasra noted that assembly processes are also rapidly moving towards digitization.
Mahendra Chaudhary, the Deputy Chief Government Whip, explained that an iPhone 13 was a natural progression. “Before there were bags, then briefcases, then laptops, then iPads and now iPhones. In the future we will have something else.
Last year, Gehlot presented the 2021-22 budget as the state’s “first paperless budget” and MPs were given iPads. Prior to this, in 2019, almost all MPs enjoyed the option of laptops, desktops, printers, etc. free through the Assembly – a facility since Vasundhara Raje’s tenure from 2003 to 2008, according to Assembly officials.
According to Chaudhary, BJP MPs also wanted to keep iPhones. “They brought the phones home, some also inserted SIM cards, their children celebrated. But then three to four people (BJP), after being pushed by the central leadership of their party, announced this decision.
And why just return iPhones, he added. “Why don’t they return iPads given away last year, and laptops before that, and apartments Rs 30 lakh?” They should manifest and return them too.
Kataria said that was an unfair comparison. ‘It’s not just MPs, the Housing Board also gives houses to the common man at steep discounts. And the government wanted MPs to move out of old neighborhoods, so giving away new apartments was one way of doing that.
Under the facility that came into force in Raje’s government, MPs now have the choice of taking laptops, desktops and printers from HP, Dell and Epson, apart from the Apple iPad Air and Apple iPad Pro, with predetermined specifications, up to Rs 1 lakh. . If they go above, they have to shell out money out of pocket.
After the end of the government’s five-year term, MPs should return these laptops, etc. to the Assembly, since technically the Assembly owns these items. However, that is not happening, officials said. “So typically we write to the finance ministry to write off those items,” an assembly official said.