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Not a wealth of information

A Wikileaked document claims that a US embassy official was told how the first UPA government intended to buy parliamentary votes to survive a no-confidence motion called over the Indo-US nuclear deal. It is almost impossible to verify the document, the accuracy of the official's report or whether cash was actually offered for votes.

india Updated: Mar 18, 2011 21:34 IST

A Wikileaked document claims that a US embassy official was told how the first UPA government intended to buy parliamentary votes to survive a no-confidence motion called over the Indo-US nuclear deal. It is almost impossible to verify the document, the accuracy of the official's report or whether cash was actually offered for votes.

In any case, the WikiLeak uproar that ensued has combined two separate issues.

One is the issue of US involvement in Indian foreign policy. The other is how money is being used to grease the Indian political system. On the first issue, even if the cable is taken to describe an event that actually came to pass, there is little evidence of untoward intervention by Washington. The cable shows US officials acting as mere reporters.

They did not play any role in the buying of the votes. The other Wikileaked documents are also normal diplomatic activity. If the cables of India's foreign missions are ever revealed, the hope is that they are as detailed and clear as these. The US does lobby for and recommend policies to Indian interlocutors - as do envoys everywhere in the world, including Indian ones.

The second issue is a much more important concern: the role of money power in Indian politics. One reason the WikiLeaks document has been able to get so much traction is that the idea of a small regional party putting up its votes for auction is believable. Only the naïve will not accept that votes-for-cash is a common practice in Indian politics.

It is argued that this is a consequence of the confluence of three factors. One, small parties and independent legislators often have no interest in specific Bills and policy debates and will cheerfully take up a position - for a price.

Two, both they and larger party members are driven by an insatiable need for funds. But the truth is that even an Indian politician with honest intentions faces a simple dilemma: campaigning today can cost millions of rupees a month and most parties leave their candidates to their own financial resources.

Three, the unfortunate truth is that most Indian voters are unconcerned about venality in their leaders. Corruption is as much about economic systems that encourage venality or penalise honesty as it is about moral and legal culture.

There are a host of ways to whittle down the black money economy. A commission to look into the idea of public funding of political campaigns should be instituted.

But to end corruption in higher places, an effort must also be made to stamp out the petty bribery that is so commonplace across the country. If the average voter has to pay graft for every conceivable service, he is unlikely to see his political leaders selling votes as anything other than business as usual.

It says something that it takes a foreign government's observations to arouse India's polity on such an issue.