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Politics, money and the media

January 10, 2006 18:13 IST
Both in India and the United States, scandals related to abuse of information are the headlines.

In India, the Amar Singh wiretapping case is the big news, having replaced the Parliament bribery scandal, which, in turn, came at the heels of the oil-for-food scam exposed by Paul Volcker.

There is an old saying that money is the mother's milk of politics, but in this post-modern age information is no less. Politics, money and the media are intertwined in the most unlikely situations, especially because of the power of information to fashion reality.

In the US, a cloud of corruption hangs over the Republican leadership of the Congress. Tom DeLay, the Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, has lost his position, and we don't know what other heads will roll. This corruption, as a consequence of a nexus between lobbyists and politicians, was facilitated by the media that did not do its job.

After the 9/11 attacks, the media chose to defer to politicians. It even participated in the manipulation of public opinion prior to the Iraq war as in the notorious Judith Miller stories in The New York Times, which made it possible to sell the war. More recently, the same newspaper sat on the story of domestic snooping by the National Security Agency for a year before publishing it.

In India, last month, Parliament expelled 11 members (10 from the Lok Sabha and one from the Rajya Sabha) who were snared in a cash-for-questions sting operation. Some have decried this decision on procedural grounds; others see a conspiracy behind the sting, calling it an 'anti-Adivasi conspiracy'; others bemoan that bigger fish has 'gone scot-free'. Some say the conduct of the expelled MPs was more a reflection of their stupidity at having been caught, given the level of corruption that pervades the system.

Although the acceptance of money for asking questions is unconscionable, the MPs were clearly naïve about the ways of Delhi. If they had only asked for contributions to their election fund before granting access, there may not have been any impropriety in the transactions. Is it that new MPs are not given orientation classes in ethics and 'rules of the game' when they arrive in Delhi?

Good doctors like to treat the roots of a disease, rather than its symptoms, although in urgent situations the symptoms must be alleviated to gain time for the treatment. The expulsion episode has already taught the MPs to be careful about how they sell their services. Corruption will go on. The deeper problem as to why MPs are willing to do what they did does not appear to have been addressed.

The Lok Sabha committee that investigated the scandal did an extremely poor job at analysis and it produced a very shoddy report. This Committee, headed by Pawan Kumar Bansal, arrived at its conclusions in just five days. The television show was broadcast on December 12. The committee started its work on the 14th. On December 18 it interviewed some of the MPs to hear their side of the story; on the 19th, it viewed further tapes; on the 20th

its draft report was ready, which was presented the following day to the Lok Sabha.

The MPs or their representatives were not given a chance to question the accusers, as is the basic right of the accused in any legal proceedings! If this is to become a precedent to future action against MPs, it would be easy for the ruling majority to expel any MP it did not like.

The committee did not examine finer points related to ethics of accepting money in lieu of asking a question. What if the money was an election fund contribution? What if the money involved was Rs 100 rather than Rs 100,000? Should there be proportionality in the punishment?

The committee seems to have followed the precedent of the expulsion of one H D Mudgal on September 24, 1951 whose crime was 'his dealings with a Bombay Bullion Association, which included canvassing support and making propaganda in Parliament on certain problems on behalf of that association, in return for alleged financial and other business advantage.'

In Western democracies, it is considered perfectly appropriate to speak in the legislature on behalf of matters where one might have a personal interest. It is, of course, unethical to write legislation that would give monetary benefit to organisations on a quid pro quo basis. But certainly the hustle and bustle of shifting perspectives in the crafting of legislation requires 'canvassing support and making propaganda.'

Unlike the West, the MP in India has very little agency. He is not allowed to vote his conscience on issues that come up in Parliament. If he votes against his party's whip, he is liable to be expelled. He can ask questions, but even they must be approved by the Speaker. No wonder, some MPs find their only autonomy at Question Hour!

Given that the ten MPs named in 1996 by the CBI for taking money to vote in favour of the P V Narasimha Rao government have still not been punished by the courts or Parliament, the belief must have been that it was all right to accept money for questions.

According to the Lok Sabha Rule Book, 'Voicing the constituents' concerns on the floor of the House is the primary parliamentary duty of an elected representative.' This is different from Western democracies where the primary duty is to enact laws, and the question of implementation is left to the executive and the courts.

Meanwhile, more sophisticated MPs are abusing the system in different ways. Brinda Karat's attempt to discredit Swami Ramdev by accusations about the quality of his Ayurvedic medicines is one example.

If she was concerned about adulteration, she should have filed a formal complaint with the competent authority in the state against Swami Ramdev's pharmacy. Ms Karat slandered him for her political agenda, and the Union health ministry did its bit to help her by using dubious samples submitted by her and bypassing the protocol to get them 'tested.'

There is nothing honourable about any of this, and the media should have pointed it out at the start, but it did not. Parliament and the courts must also investigate this abuse of power.

External link: Lok Sabha Corruption Inquiry Committee Report

Subhash Kak