Finest House Money Can Buy

If Operation Duryodhan is to have any lasting impact, then Prime Minister and the Speaker must act, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Dec 18, 2005 04:32 IST

When I was at university in England, the great politically incorrect story was about a professor of anthropology who managed to earn the ire of all of Oxford’s female students with a single remark at a single lecture.

Discussing a remote island in the South Seas at one of his lectures, he pointed out that the sex ratio was so skewed that there were six men for every woman.

“It is a situation so biased in favour of women,” said the crusty old misogynist, “that even the ladies of Somerville (then a single sex women’s college) might be able to find husbands there.”

At this, all the women in the audience rose as one in protest at the old buffer’s sexism and walked out of the hall to register their anger.

The old boy waited till they were near the door before giving them his parting shot.

“There’s no need to hurry,” he advised. “The boat doesn’t leave till next week.”

I was reminded of this (incredibly sexist, terribly bad taste etc etc) story when I saw the photographs of our MPs rushing out of Parliament after Friday’s bomb scare.

So great was their hurry that I felt like shouting out, “Don’t rush. Nobody’s going to offer you money to ask parliamentary questions for at least another month or so.”

I suppose the cruelty of my response was dictated by HT’s experience of how self-righteous MPs can be about their own (generally dubious) record for an honest exercise of their responsibilities.

Some months ago, when the media were dissecting India TV’s sting operation in which a female TV reporter enticed minor film stars and then recorded their responses with a hidden camera, we had the bright idea of asking Aniruddha Bahal, architect of the original Tehelka stings, to do a guest column on the ethics of sting operations.

In his piece, Bahal said pretty much what most sensible people would have expected him to say. He recognised the moral grey area occupied by sting journalism but reckoned that such operations were justified when there was no other way of finding the truth and when — this was the important bit — there was an overriding public interest involved.

The trouble with the India TV sting, he wrote, was that even if it conclusively established that Bollywood figures were willing to offer roles in exchange for sexual favours, then, as long as any sex that resulted was consensual, it was hard to see how there was an overriding public interest at stake. The final conclusion was — at best — that some films featured women who had slept their way into their roles.

Far better, he suggested, if we used stings to establish the truth about really important issues which affected the public interest. One of his chosen examples was the widespread suspicion that MPs accepted money to exercise their parliamentary duties to the benefit of the wealthy.

Even as I read Bahal’s guest column, I knew what he was talking about. For the last decade or so, Delhi has buzzed with rumours that many MPs will take money to ask questions. In some cases, it was rumoured, the money went straight to the heads of various regional parties — and their sleazy bag-men — who would waste parliamentary time and misuse their positions on parliamentary committees to raise issues designed to benefit one particular industrial house. (Naturally, I will not dignify these scurrilous rumours by naming the companies, the parties and the bag-men involved but you know who I mean.)

In other parties, the perversion of the parliamentary process occurred at an individual level. There were no directions from the leadership but MPs were willing to act as freelancers and ask questions in return for brown envelopes filled with cash. Obviously, this happened more in the larger parties where individual MPs were more difficult to monitor. But it was accepted, within political circles, that many obscure Congress and BJP MPs could be paid to ask questions.

So, when Aniruddha made this point in his Guest Column, I was not particularly surprised. “That’s an idea,” I thought to myself. “Why doesn’t somebody sting these greedy MPs?”

I forgot all about the sting idea when we received a privilege notice from Parliament. By suggesting that some MPs were susceptible to monetary blandishments, we were told, Aniruddha and the HT had lowered the dignity of Parliament. We would have to explain ourselves or else face disciplinary action from the great and the good in Parliament House.

A privilege notice is not to be laughed at — the consequences can be severe — so our lawyers got to work trying to find legalistic justifications for the Guest Column’s impertinent suggestion.

But even as we struggled with the legalese, Aniruddha was one step ahead of us. Rather than restrict himself to legal responses, he went ahead and did exactly what he had suggested in his piece — he launched a sting to see how many MPs could actually be paid to ask questions.

He had powerful support from Aroon Purie of India Today whose TV channels, Headlines Today and Aaj Tak, financed the operation and telecast the results of his investigation.

Well, we all know what happened. And it makes a mockery of the breach of privilege notices that we received in the aftermath of Bahal’s Guest Column. Operation Duryodhan, as the TV Today network called the sting, demonstrates that anybody, with no credentials whatsoever, can walk into an MP’s home and pay him to ask questions in Parliament.

Because Bahal is a literary sort, the questions he made the corrupt MPs ask were full of bookish in-jokes and references to Joseph Heller, JD Salinger and Tom Wolfe. It is a measure of the general illiteracy of Parliament that even when the questions were asked, nobody got the jokes.

But suppose for a moment that Operation Duryodhan had not been full of Eng Lit references. Suppose Tom Wolfe and JD Salinger had been replaced by the names of some of India’s great commercial enterprises. Would the MPs still have asked the questions?

You bet they would have.

Not only that, they would have treated the whole thing as business as usual. Because that is precisely how the great Indian family-run companies operate. Not only do they pay MPs to ask questions on their behalf, but they also end up buying entire political parties and watch delightedly as the party bag-men push corporate commercial interests.

Small wonder then that India has the finest Parliament that money can buy.

Much has been made of the fact that six BJP MPs took the money while only one Congress MP put himself up for hire. Or that Aniruddha’s operatives had no luck with MPs from some of the regional parties where all corruption is centrally directed and where there is no room for individual enterprise.

Personally, I don’t think this proves very much. The reason that BJP MPs were more eager to accept the cash was only because their party is out of power and there are few other money-making opportunities. The Congress, on the other hand, runs the government and MPs have many other ways of making easy money. And as for the UPA allies, the term ‘fast buck merchants’ does not even begin to describe their behaviour while in office.

I don’t think this is a party-specific issue. The problem is that Indian politics is now largely about money. It costs money to get elected. It costs money to remain in office, to run schemes in your constituencies and to maintain a staff. And because the electorate is so unpredictable and because governments know that they can suddenly collapse at any time, there is an irresistible urge for politicians to make as much money as they can.

And then, there’s the naked greed factor. Because so many people at the top of the political pyramid make so much money, those who are lower down the ladder feel obliged to follow their example. There is now no social sanction against corruption. We see MPs who we know come from poor or lower middle-class backgrounds throwing parties that cost lakhs of rupees. We see them stepping out of private planes while talking about their concern for the poor. And still, we don’t seem to mind.

Why, then, should politicians feel that it is wrong to make money in every which way they can?

At the HT Summit, Sonia Gandhi said how disturbing she found it that people expected all politicians to be corrupt. Her endeavour, she said, was to make sure that this view did not go unchallenged. I’m sure that the Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha — two of India’s most decent and honest politicians — share her concern.

If Operation Duryodhan is to have any lasting impact, then they must act on this concern. And as for us — in the media and the public at large — I fear we have become too forgiving of the political sleazeballs who hog Page Three.

It is time we asserted our right to clean governance.

First Published: Dec 18, 2005 04:28 IST