MONEY and power have always been an explosive mix. Politicians use their unbridled powers to spin rags to riches tales while the rich have used the clout of money to make the political establishment dance to their tune. For far too long, this deadly mix, has darkened our political system and turned our politicians into objects of national suspicion. Ordinary people often wonder if there is one law for the rich and another one for the rest. The debate has reached official circles and the provocation for this is a chance scrutiny of the income tax returns of some ministers that revealed huge discrepancies between their affidavits filed before the Election Commission at the time of the last general elections and their declarations before the tax authorities.
It has resurfaced after affidavits filed during last year’s elections revealed that nearly half of the candidates had not filed their PAN details and many among those who had filed returns saw their assets increasing five fold, even ten- fold in some cases. Tax authorities have discovered after initial scrutiny that politicians are being wooed with gifts in cash and kind, that money is pouring into ventures floated by their family members and political scions who have graduated from some of the ‘ doomed universities’ are easily finding jobs in the very MNCs that were handing out pink slips to the far more gifted graduates of our best B- schools.
Let’s start with our ministers. There is a code of conduct in existence since 1964 applicable to ministers both at the Centre and in the states. Though it has no legal backing, all ministers are expected to scrupulously adhere to it, with the authority of ensuring its observance resting on the prime minister in the case of union ministers and chief ministers and with the chief ministers in respect of his or her cabinet colleagues. As government documents go, it is amazing for its brevity: it runs into less than five pages and lists all the do’s and some don’ts for ministers.
Among the do’s are that all ministers disclose to the PM or the CMs, as the case may be, details of assets and liabilities, business interests of himself and family members, sever all connections with any business in which he had an interest before his appointment and furnish annually by August 31 declarations to this effect. The don’ts say that ministers must not start or join any business, ensure members of his family don’t engage in business with the government, not accept contributions, political, charitable or otherwise, not accept costly gifts, avoid ostentatious parties etc.
Manmohan How many of our ministers actually adhere to these guidelines is anyone’s guess. Mine is that it is less than a handful, at the Centre and the states put together. Is it any wonder then that MPs and MLAs are following the same path. About a year ago, following reports which suggested that several union ministers were not filing their returns despite clear orders from the PMO, I had in these columns written about India Today magazine, where I am Editor, invoking the RTI to find out the truth. Our applications kept bouncing between the Central Information Commission, the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat for over a year, at the end of which we were none the wiser.
The disease is not new, it is at least two decades old. Even during the NDA regime, there was not a single year in which all ministers submitted details of their wealth to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. But during this regime, whose brainchild is the RTI that allows ordinary citizens to seek financial accountability, truancy has reached new heights. The Prime Minister’s office sends its annual missive which are dealt by ministers with a punch of two keys —“ control delete”. And I am told in the states the situation is far worse.
Why are our Ministers, chief ministers, MPs and MLAs so brazen about violating the code? One of the reasons could be the advent of coalition governments and consequent weak leadership where even a one MP party thinks it can do as he wishes because the government dare not raise a finger. In the UPA, this seems to have become the norm, thus making a mockery of the concept of transparency.
The right to know what the government and ministers are doing is fundamental to a democracy. Our political class seems to think that while democracy is a good idea, transparency is not.