Probity in public life — this is the promise every party makes come the elections. But with successive governments, this has been observed more in the breach.
Invariably, it crops up every time an impropriety has occurred. The controversy over external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje and their intervention for disgraced IPL czar Lalit Modi could have been avoided if the issue of probity had been taken seriously by all concerned. If this has to become institutionalised in public life, it must start from the very rank and file of the political parties.
While speaking of larger national issues, very few parties, except the Left, lay down stringent rules of conduct for their functionaries. For example, the party can make it clear that no functionary can accept the hospitality of a private entity without the prior permission of the leadership. If a political person is invited by a prestigious institute to attend a conference or give a lecture, the party leadership should assess whether this enhances the prestige of the organisation and take a call. Here we see a situation of political luminaries across party lines accepting the hospitality of private entities, like the IPL, which picked up their hotel bills. This raises the suspicion that this is just the tip of the iceberg and there is much more to this grace and favour system than meets the eye. Then there is the influence peddling, asking favours for admissions to universities abroad among other things, as Ms Swaraj’s husband did for their nephew. The question of Ms Raje’s son’s meteoric increase in fortunes is another case in point. The real issue is that none of these things happened overnight. They happened because our netas felt that the laws did not apply to them.
Had political parties been really tough on offenders, this system could have been contained. The message that goes out to junior party members is also all wrong. They see their seniors cutting corners and prospering. They see this as the template for success. A few years ago, there was a scandal in Britain involving MPs fudging their bills. The amounts were relatively minor but those found guilty had to go. There was no question of the party rallying around or elected representatives staging a show of strength. These recent unfortunate incidents should serve as a wake-up call for all parties. They have to adopt a zero tolerance approach to impropriety within their ranks. Clarity on the issue has to begin at home.