External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s help to former IPL chief Lalit Modi in procuring travel documents from the British government has raised the issue of conflict of interest, which remains largely unregulated by law.
However, experts remain divided on whether India should enact a law to address conflict of interest situations.
The concept of conflict of interest assumes that people in a position of power and trust are morally and ethically obligated to do good for those who put them there.
Senior Counsel Rajiv Dhawan says, “In India, standards of public morality and propriety are non-existent. There is an urgent need of a law to address conflict of interest situations. What we need is a statement of principles and a surveillance and enforcement regime.”
India has no explicit laws governing such situations, trusting morality and ethics of the person involved to govern their actions.
Swaraj’s case is not a first, and conflict of interest can extend to any sphere, including policy making, and between private individuals like a lawyer and client.
Recent controversies that have plagued the NDA cabinet.
Clinical trials on an HPV vaccine led by PATH, a US-based organization having interest in HPV vaccine promotion, in 2013 and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in 2010 were at the centre of controversy when a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health and Family Welfare reported a conflict of interest in it.
Senior advocate Shanti Bhushan says, “As long as the public good is not affected, there can be no real conflict of interest. If I were in her position, I would have certainly helped him too.”
Some legal experts say conflict of interest is not an issue to be dealt with by statute. “The good way to get around these situations could be increasing transparency between government institutions and the public,” suggests SC lawyer Apar Gupta.
Globally, UN Convention against Corruption says conflict of interest can lead to corruption and urges nations to “to adopt, maintain and strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest.”
The 2013 Law Commission of India report on the Prevention of Corruption Amendment Bill 2013 also recommended that conflict of interest be included under bribery.
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