Combating political corruption

By Inder Jit

(Published on 21 January 1986)

Political corruption has been spotlighted again — this time in the Prime Minister’s interview to the Illustrated Weekly and earlier in conference of Commonwealth Speakers and Presiding Officers in New Delhi from January 6 to 8. Mr. Rajiv Gandhi has been speaking emphatically about fighting corruption ever since he took over as Prime Minister. He spoke on the subject at the Congress Centenary Celebrations and underlined the need to clean up the system of ‘brokers of power and influence”. Asked by the Bombay weekly about his Government’s achievements, he candidly stated among other things; “Perhaps, the most difficult part has been the anti-corruption action plan where we’ve not made the sort of headway we wanted to”. Pointedly queried about steps taken against corrupt politicians, Mr. Gandhi replied: “The unfortunate thing is that where the politicians are involved, every complaint is politicized. Both ways (Congressmen and Opposition people). Highly exaggerated, on one hand. Discounted, on the other. Or both. And that way it’s very difficult to pinpoint and take hard action against them.”

The Prime Minister, however, hastened to clarify that it was not as though no action had been taken. He said: “What we have done, instead, is wherever we get continuing reports or I get the feeling that things are not going well, then we move in and do something. I don’t necessarily say that so and so is corrupt and we are throwing him out. But we change him. We get him out.” He also emphasised the correct position in democracy. Said he: “The ultimate responsibility of dealing with corruption in the political arena lies with the voters. The fact is that certain people even if they don’t have the best image, get solid support from the electorate, who must give the answer to political wheeling-dealing, corruption, whatever. Ultimately, that is where the buck is.” But Mr. Gandhi also has responsibility as Prime Minister. Much still needs to be done in the light of the Santhanam Committee’s report on Prevention of Corruption and wide experience elsewhere. In one sentence, corruption cannot be combated unless it is tackled first among politicians, especially Ministers and MPs. Raiding industrialists and bureaucrats is not enough.

The Commonwealth Speakers Conference, which failed to get the media coverage it deserved, threw up several useful ideas for combating corruption among Ministers and MPs on the opening day when it discussed “Declaration and Registration of Pecuniary Interests of Members”. Australia, according to Senator McClelland, President of its Senate, who opened the discussion, was today committed to a system of compulsory registration of interests of members of its Parliament. The Australian Labour Government, headed by Mr. Bob Hawke, had been formally and publicly committed to the principle for some years. In fact, when the Labour Party was voted to power in 1983, the new Prime Minister, in keeping with the policy enunciated earlier, tabled in Parliament statements by all the Ministers of their own pecuniary interests and those of their families. In October, 1984, the country’s House of Representatives adopted a new standing order, which established a Committee of Members’ Interests. This requires the registration of interests on a form to be determined by the Committee.

Of special interest was the contribution of the Speaker of the House of Commons, Mr. Bernard Weatherill. The Commons, he said, had discussed the issue only last month. As far as could be readily traced, the Commons had “set its face against members using their position for personal gain, while upholding their constitutional right to represent without impediment their constituents and the country as a whole.” This balancing of the two principles had not always been easy. More recently, the concept of the right even of those in public life to privacy had entered the equation as had a great increase in professional lobbying (for large Government contracts) and in the number of members engaged in public relations and political consultancy. Nevertheless, a Member was expected “to have regard to his public position and the good name of Parliament in any work he undertook or interests he acquired — and to be frank and open about his interests in his dealings with those who would be entitled to know about them.” This openness was secured by the Registration and Declaration of pecuniary interests, both being required of members by Resolution of the House.

Importantly, Mr. Weatherill pointed out that Declaration and Registration were two distinct matters. Complying with one did not absolve a member from performing the other. Declaration was required only in certain specific circumstances — essentially when a Member was doing something relevant to an interest in his parliamentary capacity. The definition of interests in this context was wide. It could be present or future: direct or indirect. The duty to declare depended on the facts of the particular case and within the general concept of the standards which the House was entitled to expect from its Members. Registration of interests, on the other hand, was required of members within a month of their taking their seats and of changes in their interests within one month of the change occurring. The interests they were required to register were set out briefly in the Register under the following headings: (1) Directorships, (2) Employment or Office, (3) Trades or professions etc, (4) Clients, (5) Financial sponsorships, (6) Overseas trips, (7) Payments etc. from abroad (8) Land property, and (9) Declarable shareholdings.

Not only that. Following the establishment of the Register, the Commons appointed a continuing Select Committee on members’ interests. This Committee oversees the production of the Register, considers any formal complaints made in relations to the registering or declaring of interests and reports to the House, which of course, takes any final decision. (The present Parliament, according to Mr. Weatherill, has had only one complaint. This concerned the Prime Minister, Mrs. Thatcher, in regard to the contracts in Oman in which her son was said to be involved. The Committee found that the complaint was, in fact, unfounded.) Importantly, the Committee has been charged by the House with keeping under review the present arrangements and considering whether any extension or change is desirable in the present scope of the Register and the requirement to declare interests. This consideration stems from “the increasing concern at the growth of parliamentary lobbying and not least about the risks of conflicts of interests where Members promote the views of outside bodies to whom they stand in a financial relationship.”

Limitation of space prevents me from referring to the contribution of the other nine Speakers. But suffice it to refer to two smaller Commonwealth countries: Malta and the Bahamas, the venue of the last CHOGM. In Malta, the Income-tax Act was amended in 1984 to remove all secrecy from income-tax returns and also to require the Commissioner of Inland Revenue to send to the Speaker the declarations made by all members of Parliament with regard to their incomes and capital assets. These declarations were then required to be laid on the table of the House. As Mr. Daniel Micaleff, Speaker of Malta, explained: “The intention behind this was to remove all doubts. This was something new in Malta. But it could be found also, for example, in Sweden, Italy and the United Kingdom. It was felt that social honesty necessitated these disclosures, from which those who were honest had nothing to be afraid of… the people had to be convinced of the honesty of each member of Parliament.”

President Edwin L. Coleby of the Bahamas said that “in 1987 we passed legislation that those who are members of Parliament, or those who are aspiring to become members of Parliament must declare their interests. And, not only Parliamentarians, but also their spouses and dependent children. In Bahamas, like many other countries, we believe that whenever one becomes a member of Parliament he should declare his interests… We do have in the Commonwealth members entering Parliament as poor members and in the short time they become rich. This goes for many Commonwealth countries… In fact, we have a Disclosure Commission where all members are supposed to declare their interests and various properties and whatever they have… If they fail, they face a penalty… We have also set up a Commission of Enquiry to go into charges against members. We do have honest and dishonest parliamentarians in the Commonwealth and we want to separate the honest ones from the dishonest ones….”

Any specific suggestion for our own country? The situation could be transformed dramatically by requiring the Prime Minister and his Ministerial colleagues at the Centre and the Chief Minister and his team in the States as also MPs and MLAs to declare their movable and immovable assets to Parliament and the State Assemblies respectively at the outset and annually thereafter. Benami assets will no doubt pose a problem. But this could be largely tackled by requiring the Ministers also to declare the assets of their sons, daughters and sons-in-law. Not a few are certain to protest and ask: “Why drag in the family members?” Actually, a couple of top Janata Ministers did so. But my answer to them was: “The country can do without such leaders.” True, Ministers at the Centre and in various states have been required for some years to furnish a list of their assets to the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister respectively. But this has at best served the political interest of the leader, not of the country. Significantly, the Lok Sabha Speaker, Mr. Balram Jakhar, suggested a code of conduct for MPs at the Speakers’ Conference.

In the US, the President, the Vice-President and all executive personnel are required to make financial disclosures. (President Reagan’s national security adviser, Mr. Richard V. Allen was forced to resign in 1982 for having failed to disclose acceptance of three watches and receipt of an ‘honorarium’ of $1,000 from a Japanese magazine.) US Congressmen are also required to make financial disclosures and are guided by codes of conduct. Each of the two Houses has its select committee to investigate allegations of improper conduct. Punishment includes censure, reprimand and expulsion. In sharp contrast, the position in India is dismal. What is worse, the Lokpal Bill makes little attempt to mend matters. “The top has to be clean to make the lower levels clean” as the Central Vigilance Commissioner, Mr. U.C. Agarwal, told me some months back and added: “People at the top are somehow not keen on anti-corruption drives. Unless they themselves are clean, they cannot enforce discipline. Yudhishtar once said in Mahabharata: mahajano gatha sa pantha. The common people follow the great! — INFA