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CATCHING THE SMALL FRY
- Cash-for-questions is low in the ranks of political corruption

Even as late as last week, if someone of some consequence had dared to suggest either in print or on TV that parliament was full of crooks, he would have been promptly slapped with a privilege notice by indignant custodians of democratic values. It is a commentary on the fragility of political self-esteem that it took a relatively low-cost, ham-fisted sting operation by a handful of media entrepreneurs to knock the bottom out of parliamentary sanctimoniousness. Operation Duryodhana, as the Cobrapost-Aaj Tak sting was inexplicably named, did not establish that all politicians are crooks. It conclusively demonstrated that many MPs, cutting across party lines, perceive themselves as contract labour in service of the highest bidder. The earlier cases involving H.G. Mudgal in 1951 and Tulmohan Ram in 1974 could have been brushed away as individual misdemeanours. A case involving 11 MPs didn't permit any benefit of doubt.

That there are MPs who take cash for questions came as no great surprise. Along with the sub-letting of servant's quarters and the misuse of railway vouchers, cash-for-questions is one of the features of minor corruption in Lutyens' Delhi. Earlier, during the shortage economy, the scope of corruption extended to securing gas and telephone connections. The pitifully small amounts of cash which changed hands in the course of the sting could just about take care of expenses on light refreshments incurred by MPs on visiting constituents during sessions of parliament. Unlike Britain, where a cash-for-questions scandal led to the appointment of the Nolan committee on standards in public life, Operation Duryodhana was just a peep into the soft underbelly of corruption. In the hierarchy of political corruption, the undistinguished backbenchers who were caught on camera were the pickpockets.

The Volcker report, on the other hand, provided us with an insight into the world of high-level political crime.

Shameful as the conduct of our MPs may be, it is worth bearing in mind the space occupied by petty corruption in the process of political evolution. 'When I first came to Washington in the 60s,' wrote Joan B. Claybrook, head of one of Ralph Nader's public interest advocacy groups in an article posted on the internet, 'I knew members of Congress who used to go out and have a drink with lobbyists, who would give them a couple of hundred bucks. They'd put them in their pocket, and legislators would do them a favour. We would be horrified at that today.' Claybrook also recalled that until 1989, the payment of honourariums was the great racket. 'It used to be that a member of Congress could be asked by the Trucking Association to come down the street and give a breakfast talk for 10 minutes and get paid $2,000, which he put in his pocket.' Other innovative methods included arrangements to have a standing tab at favourite restaurants and, of course, hospitality during holidays overseas.

What is significant is that countries such as the United States of America and Britain have tightened anti-corruption legislation to such an amazing extent that politicians no longer feel it is worth risking their reputation and political future on obvious transgressions. This is not to suggest that there is no corruption in the US or Britain. The dubious share transactions that terminated David Blunkett's very promising career in Britain is a case in point. Likewise, scandals surrounding campaign contributions are routine in the US, particularly after the passage of the campaign finance reform law. Yet, what is significant is that public pressure, institutional safeguards and an enlightened political culture have enabled many countries to plug the more obvious points of corruption and unethical politics. In the US, they have even imposed a strict code of conduct for registered lobbyists.

The scandalous feature of the recent cash-for-questions revelations is that neither the MPs themselves nor the government ever thought it necessary to impose the necessary deterrents against even known misuse of perks and privilege. The Rajya Sabha at least had an ethics committee and a code of conduct to deal with issues of probity. The Lok Sabha never thought it necessary to have a self-regulatory body.

And yet, the sale of parliamentary questions has been a known problem for long. In his well-researched What Ails Indian Parliament' (HarperCollins, 1995), the journalist, A. Surya Prakash, wrote: 'It is acknowledged by several MPs that industrial houses had perfected the art of resting their guns on the shoulders of MPs and that many of their colleagues willingly offered their services to such corporate entities. A very simple and easy way of 'helping' an industrial house is to give its liaison man signed blank question forms. The industrial house, in turn, frames the questions ' either aimed at extracting some duty concession or embarrassing a rival company 'and has it sent in. If the question sails through the ballot, the MP is briefed.' He quoted the former BJP MP, Ram Naik, as suggesting that 'about 20 to 25 per cent of MPs sign blank question forms'.

The mood of indignation and hurt that is running through all sections of parliament at the disreputable conduct of fellow MPs is, to say the least, completely hypocritical. If parliament had intended to present a more wholesome self-image, it would have prepared a code of conduct for members and specified the consequences of any violation. As things stand, parliament enjoys unfettered and undefined privileges which can even ride roughshod over the constitutional rights of ordinary citizen. The Constitution has called upon parliament to define its duties and privileges but for 55 years, India's MPs have chosen to ignore Article 105(3) and the demands for codification.

In its first report on standards in public life, the Nolan committee identified seven principles that should govern public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership by example. On all counts, the political culture in India is deficient.

Part of this stems from the inability of Hindus to translate their personal dharma into public life. At the same time, there are obstacles imposed by culture and values. Nolan, for example, identifies selflessness as taking decisions 'solely in terms of the public interest' and not conferring 'financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family or their friends'. In India, such selflessness would be construed as self-centred conduct and seen as a betrayal of family and community. It can cost an upright politician valuable constituency support. Likewise, Nolan's prescription of objectivity ' in 'making public appointments, awarding contracts or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit' would turn the world of Indian politics upside down.

What is painfully clear is that Indian public life will find it impossible to live up to very exacting standards. The widespread cash economy, the generous tax exemptions for agricultural income and the negotiable character of law enforcement make it impossible to rigidly enforce American-type norms on political funding.

Yet, a modest beginning can be made by initiating a register of interests which would make it obligatory for all public servants, MPs and ministers to divulge all income from consultancies and honourariums and all hospitality received during overseas visits. Ideally, it should also include all valuable non-consumable festival gifts and mysterious scholarships awarded to the 'children of the state'. It won't be foolproof because Indian creativity involves finding novel escape routes, but if the punishment for wilful concealment is sufficiently stringent, it could be a small step in rescuing politics from venality. Operation Duryodhana is an opportunity to engage in some spring cleaning of public life.

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