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Conflict conundrum

One should be aware of the conflict of interest involved when MPs vote on the lokpal bill or the State-funding of polls. This is a classic conflict of interest situation. But does it work at the national level? Jagdeep S Chhokar writes.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 12:37 IST

'Consultant', like 'professional', is an often used - and abused - word. Having functioned as a consultant in the area of organisation and management, I am conscious of the dilemma a consultant of the old school faces: should I make the client self-reliant thus working myself out of a job? Or should I do just enough to ensure a steady income? This is a classic conflict of interest situation. But does it work at the national level?

The society and polity in India are at crossroads today. Corruption has permeated the innards of society and the value system. Almost no one in the country seems unaffected by it. Penetration of such phenomena to this extent doesn't happen without acquiescence and active abetment by significant portions of society. Who has been responsible for it in India is less relevant than what - if anything - can be done about it. That brings us to the national conflict of interest.

Two recent phenomena illustrate this. The first is the current flavour of the month, the lokpal; the second is a perennial favourite, State funding of elections. Under our Constitution, both these need to be voted on in Parliament.

Holding the Parliament in the highest possible esteem and with no intention to compromise its dignity as the highest democratic institution in the country, one has to admit that its performance, or of the honourable members who comprise it, has not really covered it in glory of late. Without casting any aspersion on the institution as a whole, one can't wish away the fact that almost 30% (162 of 543) members have criminal cases pending against them in which charges have been framed by the court of law and the punishment for which is two or more years of imprisonment. This number has increased from 156 in the 2004 Lok Sabha.

With the number of crorepatis in the Lok Sabha having increased from 128 to 315 from 2004 to 2009, when almost half of India's population lives on s Rs 20 or less per day, and with almost 78% members of the 2009 Lok Sabha having had more votes cast against them than for them, what can be said about the 'representativeness' of the elected representatives? But what does this have to do with the conflict of interest?

Lots actually. It is these honourable members who will vote on whether there should be a lokpal or not, and if there should be one, what its powers should be. How would anyone vote if the choice is between (a) ensuring that one's party continues to function in a way so that the chances of it remaining in power or acquiring power are maximised, and (b) taking a leap into the unknown where one doesn't know what might happen? And can the honourable members be blamed for voting to ensure their, their progeny's, and their party's future well-being? The nation's well-being is not considered to be an issue these days. This is the conflict of interest the current political and electoral system creates.

Now to the perennial favourite: State funding of elections. This paper reported on June 20 that in a draft Cabinet note, the law ministry has proposed State funding for women and schedules castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST) candidates.

The saga of State funding is similar to the lokpal but in the opposite direction. While the political establishment has successfully thwarted the lokpal for 42 years, it has been chasing State funding of elections for 38 years since 1972. Despite all kinds of recommendations, the spectre of financial transparency as a prerequisite somehow gets raised and enthusiasm for State funding wanes. The Cabinet note this time has taken two precautions. Following the 'thin end of the wedge' principle, it proposes State funding only for women and SC/ST candidates, and makes it part of a 'package' deal, the other part being barring candidates with criminal cases pending against them.

How would anyone vote if there were a prospect of getting free money to contest elections now, or later, once the system becomes acceptable in the public eye with women and SC/ST candidates? It is obvious that our elected representatives face severe conflicts of interest.

Is there a way out? How do we deal with such national conflicts of interests? Can we deal with them, short of expecting our elected representatives to be utter paragons of virtue, completely devoid of self-interest? Two ways seem possible.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi suggested the first on this page (A spectacular story, Incidentally, June 18) - a meeting held at Sevagram in March 1948 "between those who had entered public life through the portal of elections and those who were doing 'constructive work'." He concluded with two questions: "Is it impossible for a Sevagram 1948-type meeting to be convened by the equivalents of those who organised that meeting to discuss corruption? Is it inconceivable that they can be inspired to gather for a meeting chaired by the Congress president, inaugurated by the PM and addressed by representatives of the 'unelected' to discuss corruption?"

Sadly, saying an unqualified 'no' to these questions seems unrealistic. Other questions arise. Should such a meeting be chaired by the president of only one party? All the parties in power? At the Centre or in the states? Should this meeting be preceded by an all-party meeting? The past record of all-party meetings on issues of national interest is not very encouraging. There are no easy answers. But then, we should not expect easy answers to highly complex questions.

If the existing dispensation is unable to answer the questions adequately, do we go beyond the existing dispensation? That is what leads us to the other option. Should we - can we - seek the opinion of 'We, the People', going beyond, not above, our elected representatives? The dreaded word is 'referendum', which our Constitution does not provide for, so far. This, then, is the national dilemma. And the conflict of interest.

Jagdeep S Chhokar is former Dean, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.

The views expressed by the author are personal.