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The Real Conflicts Of Interest

How you reacted to Sonia's resignation depends, largely, on what you already believed about the Congress and Sonia herself, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Mar 26, 2006 04:52 IST

How you reacted to Sonia Gandhi’s resignation depends, largely, on what you already believed about the Congress and Sonia herself. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of Indians, who had no political axe to grind, treated it as confirmation of something they already felt: that while Sonia was motivated by a strong sense of duty, she had no great love of office. So, having tired of the suggestion that the government was considering changing the law only to resolve the conflict over her status, she decided that she did not particularly want to be an MP anyway — at least not if it meant having to pass ordinances and live with the criticism that the rules were being altered to suit her.

If, on the other hand, you were already pre-disposed to be hostile to the Congress and Sonia — and perhaps to Indian politicians in general — you probably took the line that she was caught in a bind and had no choice but to resign. And if you were a journo, you may have argued that she converted a crisis into an opportunity and that her resignation was a political masterstroke.

All three interpretations are valid in their own way and even though I incline to the first view, I am quite happy to concede that people have the right to be cynical: after all, cynicism is the lifeblood of political journalism and the duty of every Opposition is to be cynical about the motives of every government.

So, I am not going to waste your time this Sunday with yet another piece about Sonia Gandhi or more tedious analysis of her motives. God knows we’ve all read enough of those pieces over the last three days.

My concern this week is not related to Sonia’s role in the controversy; it is, in fact, the controversy itself. My fear is that in this era of sound-bite journalism and 250-word news stories, we have allowed ourselves to be diverted from the real issue. And that issue is not how and why Sonia Gandhi resigned from Parliament. It is the controversy that led up to her resignation.

Over the last two weeks, I have done my best to try and figure out why this business of offices of profit has suddenly become the issue of this fear. Surely, MPs and MLAs have always regarded it as entirely acceptable to occupy governmental positions? Dr Karan Singh is not the first member of Parliament to head an ICCR-like body. And in the states, the formula for ministry making has always been to incorporate as many MLAs as possible into the Cabinet and to then placate the rest by making them heads of state corporations so that they can get houses and cars. As far as I can remember, nobody regarded this as unconstitutional. So, why, so many decades later, are we so obsessed with whether an MP can occupy an office of profit (whatever that is)?

My sense is that the controversy would not have exploded had it not been for the Jaya Bachchan case. Jaya was head of a UP film board. She resigned her post to stand for election to the Rajya Sabha. Later, she was re-appointed to the board. A Congress candidate whose nomination papers had not been accepted filed a petition with the Election Commission arguing that as Jaya occupied an office of profit, she should be disqualified from Parliament.

The Commission took its time in examining the case but when it finally did give its ruling, it disqualified Jaya.

In my view, that ruling should have set alarm bells ringing. We should have stopped and asked ourselves: has there been a change in policy? Should we look at the law again?

Instead, the UP government merely passed a law saying that certain posts (including Jaya’s and Amar Singh’s) were now exempt from the office of profit rule. Was it that simple to get around the law?

Apparently yes. The term ‘office of profit’ is a misnomer. The Constitution’s concern is that an MP should not accept favours from the government so that he can continue to act as a watchdog. But — and this is the important bit — all that the government has to do, if it wants to do favours to MPs, is to say that certain posts are exempt. So it can decide, for instance, that an MP can be Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission.

In effect, the law has no moral sanction because no matter how lofty its intentions, it can easily be circumvented by any government. The only reason that the present controversy exists is because previous Election Commissions tended to ignore this provision and so MPs and MLAs did not worry too much about it either. This Chief Election Commissioner has taken a rather rigid line — and all parties have been thrown into turmoil.

Several conclusions follow from this. One: it is a bit late for the Congress to say that the law should be re-examined or to consider passing an ordinance. All MPs, regardless of party affiliations, should have come to this conclusion the day that Jaya Bachchan was disqualified. They should have recognised that with the Election Commission in a bloody-minded mood, every party was going to be affected. Instead they all played politics.

Secondly, it is clear that we need to look at the law again. If it is so easy to amend to allow for exceptions then it serves no high-minded purpose. And it is not even clear over quite what an office of profit really is.

For instance, for the first few decades of our independence the Leader of Opposition got nothing from the state. Now, he gets all the privileges due to a Cabinet minister — a house, a car, staff etc. It is nobody’s case that ever since the Leader of the Opposition came to occupy a position of profit, he lost the moral authority to function as a watchdog. And sure enough, the law has been amended to allow him to do both — occupy an office of profit and oppose the government.

The obvious course would be for the government to call an all-party meeting and to constitute a group of MPs, drawn from all parties, to re-examine the law and to come up with a draft that makes more sense. But nobody is willing to do this because they all want to play politics.

The Congressmen who weep over Sonia’s resignation were eagerly awaiting Amar Singh’s disqualification from Parliament. The BJP leaders who criticise Sonia are now stuck with Jharkhand where, if the law is applied, the BJP-led government will lose its majority — so they are quite happy to take one line in Ranchi and another in Delhi. The Left, whose leaders presumably knew all about the law when they trooped off to attend co-ordination committee meetings where Sonia presided, are now being entirely hypocritical and utterly self-righteous.

By some counts, at least nine legislators from the Left are caught in the same bind — yet I haven’t heard of any of them resigning so far.

My guess is that once all the hysteria dies down, some sense will return to the political establishment and this absurd provision will be re-examined. Too many parties have too much at stake for this law to continue to exist in its present form.

But I would go further. The original idea behind this provision was to guard against conflict of interest. And yet Parliament today is more full of conflicts of interest than at any other time in our history. One instance: just count the number of industrialists who buy their way into the House and then use their parliamentary membership to promote the interests of their own business group or of the sector they represent. Another instance: think of the number of liaison men and big business chamchas in Parliament who think nothing of pushing the interests of their industrialist masters.

You want me to be specific? Okay. How about this? Vijay Mallya runs an airline. He sees no contradiction between doing this and sitting on the parliamentary committee on civil aviation.

Vijay says that he has never used his membership to push Kingfisher’s interest, which may be true. But you don’t have to be a Chief Election Commissioner to recognise the potential for conflict of interest.

Here’s another instance: take one or two of the best-known Ambani-cronies in Parliament. Check their records. See how often they have pushed Reliance’s interest. Check how many hostile questions they’ve asked about Essar. The answers may surprise you.

To my mind, this is the real debate: how do we cope with genuine conflicts of interest? Nobody in his right mind can argue that there is any real clash of interest between Sonia’s role in Parliament and her position as head of the UPA. Nor is there any contradiction between Karan Singh’s interests as an MP and his stewardship of ICCR. Nor, for that matter, is there any clash between Jaya Bachchan’s performance as an MP and anything she might do to promote cinema in UP.

But Indian politics is full of sleazy, commercial conflicts of interest. Not only do we have no law to govern them, we also have no moral or ethical conventions that can guide MPs. The way ahead is for us to use the opportunity provided by this crisis to throw out bad and out-dated laws and formulate new, clear and relevant ones.

Instead, we’ve lost ourselves again in petty party politics; in deciding whether Sonia is sincere or whether she is just smart; in trying to work out whether the BJP is being hypocritical; and in trying to frame hasty ordinances for specific problems.

Typical, isn’t it?

First Published: Mar 26, 2006 04:52 IST