Debating India

Audit the political class as well

Tuesday 26 July 2005, by KHARE*Harish

It is time to try and solve the mystery of how almost all our leaders end up being very rich men and women.

LAST FRIDAY, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi demanded an inquiry into the report of the Shiv Sena leader and former Lok Sabha Speaker, Manohar Joshi’s winning bid for a NTC mill property in Mumbai. According to reports, the former Speaker, in partnership with another Shiv Sena leader, Raj Thackeray, had secured the bid worth Rs.421 crore.

The question the Congress spokesperson raised is simple: how could a political leader find resources for the bid? Mr. Joshi, as is well known, was a schoolteacher before becoming a legislator and then the Maharashtra Chief Minister. In fact, when he became Speaker of the Lok Sabha, he was hailed as the humble man who represented the voice of the small man. In the declaration he made before the Election Commission on the eve of the 2004 Lok Sabha poll, Mr. Joshi’s assets added up to a respectable Rs.2.5 crore. But suddenly he finds himself in a position to bid for real estate worth Rs. 421 crore.

Mr. Singhvi had rather sarcastically added that he hoped "all school teachers do as well as Mr. Joshi." The Congress has, perhaps inadvertently, touched a raw nerve in the Indian political class. There has been a massive conspiracy of silence among all political parties not to raise matters of the personal wealth of leaders, though for decades now every party and every leader of any consequence has promised a "war against corruption." Meanwhile, leaders of humble origin and representing even humbler "constituencies" have become rich and resourceful. As the political parties have lost their institutional character, political leaders have strived to build up personal war chests which they use to finance elections, factions, and party apparatus.

The only time this or that leader’s assets have been talked about was when the government of the day chose to use the law to harass a political opponent. The most celebrated (and costly) attempt was made by the then Prime Minister, H.D. Deve Gowda, against the then Congress president, Sitaram Kesri (one of the handful of leaders in post-Independence India to die penniless). The Central Bureau of Investigation was asked to find out if Kesri had assets disproportionate to his known sources of income.

The idea was to use a coercive law to tame a political leader on whose support the Government was critically dependent. Having nothing to fear, Kesri retaliated by withdrawing support from the Gowda Government; and, the CBI ended up telling the court of law that Kesri was "clean."

Apart from Kesri, only a handful of leaders have found themselves subjected to any close scrutiny or audit.

Route to easy street

Now by raising the matter of Mr. Manohar Joshi’s assets, the Congress has broken the silence on a subject that has troubled civil society. Because of the Mahatma’s legacy, anyone opting for political life was deemed to be performing a "sacrifice" and engaging in a "service" to society. If that was ever an honest characterisation of politicians as a breed, it certainly does not hold true now. Today a political career is the easiest route to easy street. Only the Left leaders can be said to be the exception to the rule.

While maintaining the fiction of performing a public service, the political class has devised ways and means of having a very good life at the expense of the taxpayer. At the national level, for instance, parliamentarians get official houses, perks and privileges besides a salary. The salary, however, is at best a reasonable amount.

Yet we have the phenomenon of very, very rich politicians. Take the case of leaders who have been in Parliament for over four decades; that means that their sources of income were known and were modest. But it is an enduring mystery how these leaders end up declaring themselves before the Election Commission as being worth crores. Not all of them even declare themselves to be "agriculturalists" and hence deemed to be having untaxable income from their farm holdings. This besides the fact that the sons, daughters, sons-in-law or daughters-in-law of political leaders invariably become very successful "entrepreneurs."

If Mr. Singhvi’s party does not develop cold feet, then it can be expected to impress upon the Prime Minister to institute some kind of study on the financial wealth of political leaders, just like R.K. Hazari was commissioned in the mid-1960s to study the concentration of wealth among business houses.

The polity must benefit from the fortuitous circumstance of having the most honest politician as the Prime Minister.

See online : The Hindu

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