Politicians dutifully disclose their increasing assets at each election but no questions are ever asked about how they acquired this wealth nor are any explanations provided
“Study these four men washing down the steps of this unpalatable Bombay hotel. The first pours water from a bucket, the second scratches the tiles with a twig broom, the third uses a rag to slop the dirty water down the steps into another bucket, which is held by the fourth. After they have passed, the steps are as dirty as before… They are not required to clean,” but simply to execute an assigned duty. V.S. Naipaul’s famous remarks in his early work An Area of Darkness aptly describes the sheer futility of the ritual disclosures of assets by election candidates. The media performs its duty, each time, of comparing the latest figures with the ones disclosed only a few years earlier; marvelling each time at the talent our political class has of amassing money in a short time with none to demand that they account for the dramatic increase. We have moved far from the early days of independence when Rajaji described the tribe as gentlemen without any ostensible means of livelihood who can be rounded up by any magistrate on a charge of vagrancy. At whose expense have they acquired this wealth? And to whom should it be returned?
Consider but one instance, on which judgment must be withheld till the courts pronounce on it, but which nonetheless cannot but raise a suspicious eyebrow. It is the case of that champion of the downtrodden, Ms Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had claimed that her assets increased from Rs.1 crore in 2003 to Rs.50 crore in 2007. Its affidavit in the Supreme Court talked of 96 plots, houses and orchards acquired by her and her close relatives between 1998 and 2003. The affidavit filed along with Ms Mayawati’s nomination for the Rajya Sabha a few months ago contains an estimation of her own wealth: Rs.111.64 crore.
This is by no means an unusual case. The fact that income-tax returns are so readily accepted by IT offices reflects on the officers. Prosecutions for possessing assets disproportionate to known sources of income are rare and the CBI’s conduct is not above suspicion. The only procedure in which the gains, prima facie unusual, have to be explained by the fortunate one is a rusty instrument. Meanwhile, like the four in Naipaul’s hotel, disclosures are made but there is no clearing.
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had foreseen this. K.T. Shah and H.V. Kamath proposed in the Constituent Assembly that ministers should be obligated to declare their interests, rights and properties before they assumed office. His reply in the Constituent Assembly on December 31, 1948 is strikingly relevant today. Mere disclosure was not enough. It must be part of a four-point system.
“One is this, namely, that we should require by law and by Constitution — if this provision is to be effective — not only that the Ministers should make a declaration of their assets and their liabilities at the time when they assume office, but we must also have two supplementary provisions. One is that every Minister on quitting office shall also make a declaration of his assets on the day on which he resigns, so that everybody who is interested in assessing whether the administration was corrupt or not during the tenure of his office should be able to see what increase there is in the assets of the Minister and whether that increase can be accounted for by the savings which he can make out of his salary.
“The other provision would be that if we find that a Minister’s increases in his assets on the day on which he resigns are not explainable by the normal increases due to his savings, then there must be a third provision to charge the Minister for explaining how he managed to increase his assets to an abnormal degree during that period. In my judgment, if you want to make this clause effective, then there must be three provisions as I stated. One is a declaration at the outset; second is a declaration at the end of the quitting of this office; thirdly, responsibility for explaining as to how the assets have come to be so abnormal and fourthly, declaring that to be an offence, followed up by a penalty or by a fine … the legal sanction is inadequate. Have we no other sanction at all? In my judgment, we have a better sanction for the enforcement of the purity of administration, and that is public opinion as mobilised and focussed in the Legislative Assembly.”
Ambedkar was right on the futility of mere disclosure and the inadequacy of the legal remedy. He was altogether wrong on the weight of public opinion and the capacity of legislatures to act in a non-partisan spirit in matters of corruption. But if the Election Commission can keep tabs on the election expenditure of hundreds of candidates, why cannot the tax authorities probe efficiently into the astonishing gains of at least the taller poppies? Dr. Ambedkar’s insistence on an efficacious legal sanction, neglected then, must be explored today.
Even in 1948, when he spoke, the vice had become rampant. Truth to tell, corruption in public life was fairly widespread even before independence. On August 16, 1924, G.F. de Montmorency, private secretary to the Viceroy, sought Home Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council Sir James Crerar’s opinion on “cases of corruption” in the Bengal Council. There were “offers to pay sums” to some members “to abstain from voting in the division on Ministers’ salaries”; “actual payments” were made to some others; offers of salaried posts in the money spinning Calcutta Municipal Corporation; and regular “monthly payments to nominated members” as well. On December 2, 1926, Motilal Nehru bitterly complained to Jawaharlal that “heavy bribing of the voters was the order of the day. I am thoroughly disgusted and am now seriously thinking of retiring from public life… The Malaviya-Lala (Lajpat Rai) gang aided by Birla’s money are making frantic efforts to capture the Congress.”
The steep deterioration after Congress ministries were formed in the Provinces in 1937 is well documented in B.R. Tomlinson’s mini-classic The Indian National Congress and the Raj, based on material in the National Archives. Very many Congress candidates spent “lavishly” on their campaigns. Ministers like Syed Mahmud in Bihar were pestered with demands by Congressmen “to provide posts for them whether it is possible or not. They seem to think that I have the power to give them even Government money.”
On January 13, 1948, Gandhiji read out to a prayer meeting a letter he had received from a friend describing the mounting corruption. In 1964, the Santhanam Committee on Prevention of Corruption reported “there is widespread impression that failure of integrity is not uncommon among ministers and that some ministers, who have held office during the last sixteen years have enriched themselves illegitimately…”
That was nearly 50 years ago. The political class continues to loot the land with yet greater abandon while dutifully disclosing its increasing assets at the time of each election. No questions asked; no answers provided. Established norms have ceased to apply. Vilasrao Deshmukh was censured by the Supreme Court and ordered to pay a fine of Rs.25,000, later increased to Rs.10 lakh. The Maharashtra Government chose to pay it, to spare the proven delinquent’s purse.
Despite their loud rancorous exchanges, political parties join hands against greater measures for accountability. In the hawala case, the Supreme Court struck down the Single Directive which required prior permission from the state even before a preliminary inquiry into charges of corruption is launched. It was reinstated by law enacted by Parliament as an amendment to the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946; still the CBI’s charter. No major party dissented.
The Penal Code of 1860 and the Cr.P.C. of 1895 were enacted when there were no “Ministers.” They came much later. The sanctions provisions in the Cr.P.C. were designed to protect minions of the Raj. Today they make the government judge in its own cause if a Minister comes under a cloud. No other democracy has it. The Supreme Court will not strike it down.
Peter Oborne’s description of the situation in his book The Triumph of the Political Class is very true of our predicament today. Party differences have become blurred. Ideology, programmes and policies matter not. Power alone matters and power alone divides the parties.
It is a hark back to The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III written by the great historian Sir Lewis Namier in 1929. He demolished Macaulay’s Whig interpretation of history. The Whig-Tory clash was unreal. Changes of government were no more than reshuffles among political cliques and politicians were primarily motivated by venality and self-interest. Clashes within parties are more real than the ones between them. The start will proceed apace and all will faithfully disclose their assets to an admiring public — while India is being looted by this political class.
Of a piece with this is its clamour for privilege and special treatment — on housing, transport, by air or rail and in umpteen different ways. They aspired to be a class apart and have succeeded handsomely.
(A.G. Noorani is a lawyer and commentator. His volume, Constitutional Questions and Citizens’ Rights, was published by Oxford University Press in 2006.)