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MPs and the maze of corruption

The Indian system needs some clean-up to retain the faith of the people, writes Vir Sanghvi in Counterpoint.

india Updated: Dec 25, 2005 05:33 IST

Can you work out exactly what the BJP's stand on corruption is? No? Well, me neither. For all of Friday evening, I watched open-mouthed as the TV channels played and replayed that now notorious sound bite of LK Advani standing up in the Lok Sabha and opposing the expulsion of the MPs caught in the sting operation. The problem, said Advani, in his usual faux-reasonable sort of way, was that the punishment was not "commensurate with the offence".

Not commensurate with the offence?

You felt like shaking him up and shouting into his ear, in words of one or two syllables: "These guys took cash on camera to ask questions. They have turned the House into a joke. All of India is shocked. Wake up! Smell the coffee!"

The problem with Advani's ill-considered remark is that the BJP did have some kind of semi-valid explanation for its opposition to the expulsions. According to the party's more thoughtful legal sorts, they were worried that if Parliament expelled MPs without due process, this could lead to a situation where, in some states, unscrupulous regional parties could use the force of a brute numerical majority to throw MLAs out of state Assemblies.

Other MPs countered that the Bansal Committee represented due process and that nothing further would be gained by referring the matter to the Privileges Committee which would, in any case, look at the same video-taped evidence and come to the same conclusion. All that a reference to the Privileges Committee would ensure was a suitable delay. And given that so many of the MPs caught accepting money were from the BJP, what the party really wanted was a cooling-off period to allow the scandal to die down so that by the time its MPs were drummed out of Parliament, public attention had moved on to something else.

I don't fully understand the legal issues involved so I'm not going to pass judgment on whether the BJP was motivated by a lofty concern for setting the wrong precedent or was simply trying to buy some political breathing time.

But even if you take the line that the BJP wanted to avoid setting a bad precedent, it is difficult to reconcile this concern for constitutional propriety with Advani's punishment-is-not-commensurate-with-the-offence remark. Nor does it explain why the party took two completely different stands in each House of Parliament. In the Lok Sabha, its MPs followed Advani's lead and opposed the expulsions while in the Rajya Sabha, they took a more ambivalent position.

I said last week that it would be a mistake to see the cash-for-questions scandal in party political terms. I don't think that BJP MPs are necessarily more corrupt than Congress members. It is just that the Congressmen have other ways of making money because their party is in power.

But this week, the BJP itself has turned it into a party political issue. Its senior MP, Vijay Kumar Malhotra was the lone dissenting voice on the Bansal Committee and the party has scrambled for ways in which to either scupper or, at least, delay the expulsions. Even the JD(U), the BJP's principal ally in the NDA, has broken ranks on this issue and supported immediate expulsions.

I am prepared to believe that some of this is due to concern about precedents. But, in politics, perception can sometimes be everything. And the truth is that the vast majority of Indians believe that most - if not all - politicians are corrupt.

Anybody who has seen Indian politics up-close will tell you that this is too simplistic a conclusion. Yes, most politicians will accept money in cash (though, of course, there are those like Manmohan Singh who will never do that) and use it to fight elections, run offices in their constituencies and look after party workers. But there are unwritten codes that allow them to believe that this is not necessarily corrupt behaviour. They will not accept bribes in return for specific favours. They will be careful who they take the money from. They will not use it to fund their household expenses and will restrict its use to political purposes. And so on.

First Published: Dec 25, 2005 01:32 IST