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When office is profit, profit is office

Sunday 26 March 2006, by SINGH*Tavleen

Sunday, March 26: Forgive me if I sound frivolous but I have found hugely entertaining the melodrama over the ?Sonia Bachao’ ordinance and her resignation. Not just because it is amusing to see the Congress party’s politics of petty revenge boomerang and find its mark in no less a personage than Madame Super Prime Minister herself but also because of the definition of what constitutes an office of profit.

India must have been a very different country in the Fifties for small-time government jobs to be considered offices of profit. In today’s India do we expect anyone to seriously believe that Jaya Bachchan would be making money out of heading the Uttar Pradesh Film Development Council or that Sonia Gandhi makes a fortune in the National Advisory Council? What they could make a lot of money from is being honourable members of Parliament. Now that is a real office of profit.

The reason why everyone from big businessmen to small-time crooks wants to enter politics is because they know that the quickest way to make a quick buck in India is to become a member of Parliament. If proof were needed of this we got it on videotape in the recent television sting operations that showed MPs negotiating the price for asking questions in Parliament and MPs negotiating their commissions on development projects from their local area funds.

The sting operations revealed only the teeniest tip of the tip of what lies beneath. Those of our MPs who are unfettered by moral scruples (alas far too many) can become millionaires at the end of a single term in Parliament and if they are lucky enough to become ministers then the term ?office of profit’ acquires a whole new meaning. So why was there such a fuss about the ?Sonia Bachao’ ordinance? Well, partly because the brazen manner in which Parliament was adjourned to enable the ordinance was breathtaking in its unsubtlety and partly because the opposition parties appear to believe five minutes of hullagulla is the essence of opposition. The way this government made it possible for Ottavio Quattrocchi to get his greedy fingers on his ill-gotten wealth is of far more concern than offices of profit-related issues, but we have already forgotten Quattrocchi. The reason for this is the inability of our opposition parties to spend more than five minutes of energy on anything.

If they paid serious attention to their duties in Parliament we would be rid of the loopholes and silly laws that make a career in politics an office of profit. The NDA’s own law minister, Ram Jethmalani, talked of nearly 1,500 laws that had become obsolete or irrelevant, but where has the opposition found time to force the Government to do something about this. It is only when politicians are themselves affected by something that a law gets changed, a la the Sonia Bachao ordinance.

The rest of us have to suffer outdated laws and procedures that seem designed in many cases to enable corruption. Why do we still allow MPs their local area development funds when we know that these are so brazenly misused that some political parties order their MPs to deposit a fixed amount into the party treasury? Why do we allow ministers to have such a plethora of discretionary powers that it’s easier to make money than not to? Most importantly, why do we allow our politicians to get away with their corrupt ways when it would be so easy to nail them?

All we need to do is order all MPs and ministers to submit themselves to the sort of income tax inquisition that is unleashed brutally on ordinary Indians. Let them explain where they got their Lexuses and Land Cruisers, their Rolex watches and the Cartier pens. Even that most socialist of socialist leaders, Shri Mulayam Singh Yadav, was photographed recently wearing a gold Rolex watch. That is pretty good going for a small-time teacher from Etawah.

Speaking of unaccounted for wealth, on my way to Delhi airport not long ago I happened to drive with a real-estate agent who identified for me the owners of the magnificent estates we drove by. They belonged to ministers, ex-ministers, sons of ex-prime ministers and even some humble MPs. While we are on the subject of offices of profit, let us get down to the real ones shall we?

write to tavleen.singh@expressindia.com

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