The idea of political accountability
Indian politics doesn’t take the idea of conflict of interest seriously. This allows politicians to escape responsibility
Ajay Mishra, the Union minister of state for home, is still in office, despite the horrifying violence in his constituency in Lakhimpur Kheri, where a convoy associated with the minister is seen, on video, mowing down protesters. Rather than show remorse, the minister has chosen to brazen it out while standing by his son, now arrested for his alleged role in the crime.
While the Opposition seeks presidential intervention and farm groups have organised protests, the Union government has oscillated between silence and whataboutery. This only exposes the moral degradation of a polity where notions of political accountability and propriety are now a matter of convenience, not conviction.
Mishra is a two-time Member of Parliament (MP) with a reputation of being a local strongman in Uttar Pradesh (UP)’s Lakhimpur Kheri district. Even a cursory glance at his CV reveals a controversial history — he has been charged with assault, intimidation, even murder. The Lucknow High Court, since 2018, has reserved judgment in a 2003 murder case in which Mishra is one of the prime accused. That the nodal law and order ministry of the country should have a politician fighting a murder charge as one of its ministers exposes the underlying griminess of the political system.
The argument that Mishra shouldn’t have to pay for the alleged sins of his son, Ashish, is reflective of a political milieu where the notion of “conflict of interest” is almost non-existent. Isn’t it possible that a Union minister, who is an MP from the very region where a heinous crime allegedly involving his son has occurred, can influence a police investigation? Isn’t this likely when the same minister was caught on camera threatening farm protestors, days before the incident? Doesn’t propriety demand that the minister step aside till at least such time as the inquiry is complete? Sadly, in the absence of an institutional mechanism to manage conflict of interest situations, elected representatives can blur the lines between personal benefit and public obligations.
Unfortunately, the political leadership has chosen not to read the riot act to ministers who flout their constitutional oath. As Prime Minister (PM), Narendra Modi has forced a ministerial resignation just once. The then minister of state for external affairs, MJ Akbar, resigned in 2018 over MeToo sexual harassment allegations made by a number of women: There was no FIR against Akbar but the charges were seen to have caused reputational damage. Perhaps Akbar, as a late entrant into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s universe with no political base of his own, was seen as dispensable, in contrast to Mishra, with his local roots and Brahmin caste identity ahead of a crucial state election. In the current model of leadership, the occasional Cabinet reshuffle or denial of a ticket at election time is clearly preferred to a sudden resignation that could raise questions on political judgment.
That is why it is highly unlikely that Mishra will be asked to tender his resignation until such time as his position becomes wholly untenable. It is perhaps a demonstration of the strongman image that the PM has so assiduously cultivated that any ministerial resignation under media or Opposition pressure is seen as a sign of weakness.
Contrast this with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) years when ministers charged not just with corruption but even those who were accused of the slightest impropriety had to step down. In May 2013, for example, Ashwani Kumar and Pawan Bansal, both ministers in the Manmohan Singh government had to resign because of a public perception that they might have misused their office. While Kumar as law minister was accused of interfering in a coal probe, Bansal as railway minister resigned after his nephew was arrested for accepting an alleged bribe for a railway board post. In neither case was individual culpability established. Unlike the Modi government’s impregnable status, the Manmohan Singh-led coalition government was simply too weak to resist internal or external pressures.
While the power of a majority government is its shield against public scrutiny, where the current regime falters is in confusing support for the PM’s leadership with that for Team Modi. By refusing to sack Mishra or even express concern over the Lakhimpur fallout, the government’s credibility and commitment to the rule of law has taken a hit. One day, the unchecked hubris can start affecting the image of the leader too.
Postscript: In the focus on Mishra, Manohar Lal Khattar has got away with shocking remarks virtually asking his supporters to retaliate with sticks against farm protestors. Khattar may now claim his comments were misconstrued but they reveal a dangerously retributive mindset that endorses vigilantism. Who will rein in our lawmakers who see themselves as above the law?
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal