Transparency? What's that?               Virendra Kapoor
   June 25, 2002

Transparency in governance is a lofty slogan. When it comes to the brass tacks, our politicians are only too eager to put a tight lid on their doings.

No government is fully accountable to the people in whose name it almost always (mis)rules. Far-reaching decisions that have a bearing on the lives of millions are invariably taken without the people themselves being told the how and why of it.

Indira Gandhi overturned the Constitution during the Emergency, suspended fundamental rights of the people and jailed more than 150,000 of her critics. It is, in free India, probably the worst case of a politician imposing her personal agenda on the nation in the name of the people.

But, then, in ways small or big, such instances are commonplace. Governments instinctively tend to clam up and keep the people away from the decision-making process. Once in power, the voters become incidental to the business of governance. Thus, the people are given information, albeit in driblets, regardless of every recent government's commitment to be transparent in its conduct.

The quest for transparency, however, does not begin when politicians come to power. It actually starts when they offer themselves as candidates in state and parliamentary elections. They compete for the trust of the people without trusting the latter with relevant information about themselves. That is why people fail to make informed choices.

The Supreme Court recently directed all candidates in state and parliamentary elections to compulsorily furnish their educational and income status. Also, a candidate with a criminal record or facing criminal prosecution was required to declare it at the time of filing his nomination papers.

The Election Commission was directed to ensure these details were provided by all candidates. The government was expected to amend the law in order to empower the Commission to seek the above information and the latter was directed to display the information prominently, so that voters could check its veracity and make their own judgement.

The Union Cabinet, however, took a different view of the apex court's directive. Several ministers opposed it, arguing it would lead to the harassment of even the most upright candidate. It was felt that interested parties would always question the veracity of the declaration made by candidates and thus vitiate the atmosphere during the electoral campaign. Also, those facing criminal cases of a purely political nature -- for instance, politicians leading protest dharnas or erecting roadblocks as part of their normal political mobilisation programme -- would be clubbed with gangsters-turned-politicians who were involved in cases of murder, dacoity, extortion and worse.

After an hour-long debate, the Cabinet concluded the Supreme Court's directive was impractical and decided not to implement it. During the discussion a senior Bharatiya Janata Party member is said to have remarked only half in jest that the only downside in rejecting the directive would be that the country would be denied the opportunity to know from the horse's mouth that Sonia Gandhi was not a graduate.

Karan Singh says Ram Ram

Karan Singh, the Congress member of the Rajya Sabha, is like the late Chaudhary Hari Ram of Rohtak. With one minor difference. While Ram filed his nomination papers for India's first few Presidential contests with unfailing regularity, Dr Singh cannot do so due to the change in the law. Now, a minimum number of members of the electoral college have to propose and second your name if you would like to contest for the country's top job.

Of course, there was no question of Ram ever making it, though as his son, R K Hooda, says only a technical glitch stood between his father and Rashtrapati Bhavan. According to Hooda, if the nomination papers of Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr S Radhakrishnan or Dr Zakir Hussain were rejected on technical grounds, Ram, as the lone remaining candidate, would have automatically been elected unopposed!

While Ram's ambitions were laughed off by one and all, Dr Singh is beginning to look embarrassingly silly. A few days ago, he took out an advertisement in a leading New Delhi paper proclaiming his 'appreciation and gratitude to all friends and well-wishers for their support' for his candidature. The self-serving ad began, 'Since speculation in the media started some months ago regarding the Presidential election, I have received hundreds of goodwill messages from around the country, most of them from people I have never met...'

Contrary to the impression the ad may have created, some of his critics say Dr Singh himself floated his name for President in both this and the 1997 election. The other day, he buttonholed a top government official, telling him to help him achieve his ambition as Dr Singh had helped him become a member of the India International Centre a few years ago when he was IIC president.

A few days before the National Democratic Alliance settled on A P J Abdul Kalam as its candidate, Dr Singh also told a central minister to put in a word with Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. However, there were no backers for his claim and the former maharaja of Kashmir remains a perennial Presidential hopeful.

Shourie at it again

Anyone dealing with Divestment Minister Arun Shourie does so at his own peril. He is recording everything he sees and hears for a tell-all memoir once he ceases to be minister. Shourie's next book, which will lay bare the workings of the NDA government as he sees it, would, he reckons, outsell all his previous books.

Already, he has begun to murmur to friends and acquaintances as to which of his ministerial colleagues is on the take from which industrial house.

9 Ashoka Road

Law Minister Arun Jaitly may have hit upon a simple way of ensuring his BJP colleagues' professional well-being. Since the last three occupants of his official residence, 9 Ashoka Road, which he has placed at the party's behest while he continues to occupy his home in south Delhi, have realised their ambition, Jaitly feels the house might be lucky for its occupants.

The first occupant of the little air-conditioned cottage constructed in the compound of the Ashoka Road house was Narendra Modi, who soon found himself chief minister of Gujarat. Next came BJP spokesperson Maya Singh. Within a few months, Singh was made a Rajya Sabha member. Its next occupant, former RSS pracharak Devdas Apte, the BJP official in charge of the north-east, too was nominated to the Rajya Sabha from Jharkhand and will vacate the cottage on election to the Upper House.

All we can say is, anyone who seeks to advance his career in the BJP should now request to occupy the cottage till his/her ambition is realised.

Football fever

India may not be even a tiny blob on the international soccer map, but well-heeled Indians everywhere are glued to their television sets watching the World Cup. The big games saw thin attendances in offices and empty bazaars. Truly, soccer mania has gripped the nation.

On the eve of the Brazil-England quarter final, it dawned on senior Delhi Police officers that Commissioner Ajai Raj Sharma, had scheduled a meeting at noon, the very time of the kick-off in Shizuoka, Japan, to discuss the law and order situation in the capital.

Hesitantly, some of them requested him to reschedule the meeting. Not only did Sharma agree, he even thanked his officers for reminding him he too had to watch the game.

Illustrations: Uttam Ghosh

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