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So many shades of grey
Confusion makes for an ideal breeding ground for conflict of interest and politicians make capital of the fuzzy code of ethics that governs them.
While N Srinivasan and M S Dhoni battle charges of conflict of interest after the IPL bubble burst, it is significant that the issue has never really troubled anyone in the power corridors of Delhi. Although questions have arisen from time to time about the curious overlap between the personal and the public, the ruling elite, whether political or bureaucratic, has always managed to sidestep controversy.
So, when Vijay Mallya, in his first term as Rajya Sabha MP, was nominated to the parliamentary standing committee on aviation despite his controlling stake in Kingfisher Airlines, no-one batted an eyelid. It was justified on grounds of expertise. "He brings so much to the table because of his experience in the field, " was the reasoning.
In his second term in the Rajya Sabha, Mallya is on the standing committee on fertilizers and chemicals although he happens to be chairman of Mangalore Chemicals and Fertilizers Ltd. There was a murmur of protest with former chief justice of India V N Khare commenting that it "can be an example of conflicting interest". But that mild remark disappeared in a well of silence. Mallya's defence is to absent himself from committee meetings. It then raises the question: why did he allow himself to be appointed in the first place?
There have been several such cases that have caused eyebrows to be raised. But no action was ever taken. For example, actor Hema Malini asked a seemingly innocent question in the Rajya Sabha on RO water purifiers although she is the brand ambassador for one of the country's leading manufacturers of the product, Kent RO. It caused a mild flutter and was soon forgotten.
In 2009, the conflict of interest issue caused a slight furore in the Upper House when CPI(M) MP Brinda Karat questioned the ethics of fellow parliamentarian Parimal Nathwani jumping to defend Reliance Industries Ltd in a calling attention motion on gas availability for power generation. Nathwani is group president (corporate affairs) of RIL but he was unmoved by Karat's protests. "I interfered since the issue involved a dispute between the two brothers (Mukesh and Anil Ambani). The ethics committee has cleared me so far, " he retorted at that time. The matter died a quick death.
The irony is that both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha have an ethics committee which has laid down some sort of guidelines on the issue of conflict of interest. But as former Lok Sabha secretary general Subhash Kashyap points out, the guidelines are not properly defined and more importantly, rarely enforced. After all, who's going to bell the cat in the temple of our democracy?
Vested interests thrive in confusion and conflict of interest is one area best left coloured in several shades of grey. And if ever it needs to be defined in black and white, everyone bands together to protect their collective interest as they did when the office of profit controversy swept the Indian Parliament. It started with the disqualification of Jaya Bachchan, then Rajya Sabha MP, for holding a post in the UP Development Council, which was deemed to be an office of profit. The move had a domino effect. Sonia Gandhi was the next to go for chairing the National Advisory Council. She quit the NAC and her Lok Sabha seat and sought re-election. Anil Ambani soon followed after which the then Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee was caught in controversy for holding the post of chairman of the Santiniketan Sriniketan Development Authority. As the Election Commission started processing similar complaints against some ten MPs, Parliament quickly moved to amend the Prevention of Disqualification Act to remove 200 odd posts from the list of offices of profit.
Interestingly, Rajya Sabha Congress MP from Tamil Nadu, Sudarsana Natchiappan, moved a private member's Bill earlier this year which aims to address the issue of conflict of interest. He points out that the composition of Parliament has changed vastly over the past 20 years with the entry of businessmen film actors with deep personal interests that could clash with the discharge of their public duty as MPs. "So it is important that we have the practice of disclosure in the public space through law," he emphasises. Unfortuantely, his Bill never came up for discussion and has since lapsed. "But I will not let it rest, " he insists.
Kashyap rues that the bulk of present day MPs are not "true representatives of the people". He says that 85 per cent of Lok Sabha MPs have had more votes cast against them than for them but were elected because of the "first past the post" system. And Rajya Sabha is increasingly becoming a haven for industrialists, corporate lawyers, film stars and those who lose Lok Sabha elections or simply unelectable.
"We must change the composition of Parliament. And to do this, we need urgent electoral reforms, " Kashyap emphasises.
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