Can the Prime Minister reassure us that the Gandhi family connection had no role to play in the Vadra-DLF transactions?

The focus of the debate on the Robert Vadra-DLF real estate dealings has been on the legality of the transactions. Congress spokesmen insist that no evidence has come forth to show illegality and, therefore, rule out the need for an enquiry, while the opposition has somewhat mutedly asked for one. Though it is important to ascertain if any laws were violated, it is also necessary to go beyond the realm of the law and into the territory of propriety.

Notions of propriety have changed since our freedom movement and the early years of our independence. This matter, and the revelations of the past few years, tell us the distance our polity and society have travelled since that time, unfortunately, in the wrong direction.

We live in cynical times and any reference to probity in political and social life evokes only derision and an admonition to “get real.” Nevertheless, the times demand of us now more than ever before to reflect on what Gandhiji would have thought of all this. Gandhiji had advised those in public life that if they were ever in doubt about a policy or action they should think of how it would impact on the poorest of the poor. What would he have said to public men and their family members on contacts and dealings with businessmen? He would have certainly not suggested that they give up their trade or profession and take sanyas or not be friendly with them. Perhaps he would have recommended a simple test: that they ask themselves if a proposal or deal would have been offered to them had they not held a particular office or not been part of the family of such an office holder. This is the principal question that Mr. Vadra and his family have to address. The law may demand a direct nexus to a quid pro quo for corruption to be established but propriety makes a greater demand: that no personal benefit of a financial nature is derived on account of such a relationship.

It would be entirely appropriate for Mr. Vadra to become a successful businessman on the strength of his commercial acumen and skills and venture into new fields including real estate, but in a manner that is manifestly straightforward and transparent. Greater public scrutiny is the inevitable price a family member of those in high places has to pay.

Then and now

There is also little doubt that once apparently credible questions are raised, Gandhiji would have rejected any recourse to claims of privacy and would have demanded full disclosure. Obviously, public officials and their family members have to be protected against frivolous and malicious charges of wrongdoing. But if prima facie, the questions raised are credible, then it is only proper that they clear doubts. Nothing vitiates a polity more than dark clouds of doubt regarding the conduct of public figures and their kith and kin. Clearly these prescriptions apply to all those in public life and their families and become more rigid and compelling as the office or position in public affairs gets higher. They also apply to Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan. The former must clarify if he adhered to the Civil Services Conduct Rules while he was in service, for criticism of the government is forbidden so long as one is on government rolls. The latter must tell us if his family’s property dealings meet the scrutiny not of legality but of propriety.

The lives of our public men immediately after independence were generally austere and frugal. The perks and privileges given to ministers were far less than what they enjoy today. One telling example was in the number of cars given to cabinet ministers. Only one car was allotted and that too only for official purposes. All cabinet ministers possessed small private cars which they and their family members used for their personal travel. Of course, times have changed and security considerations have to be taken into account. That generation of leaders evoked respect through the strength of their character and their record of public service and not the use of the symbols of state authority such as flashing red lights and noisy sirens.

Acid test

The Vadra-DLF matter is above all an acid test of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. His ministers have spoken of the law. He must rise above this and dwell on propriety. That he must uphold the law and the Constitution is obvious. However, the nation expects more; it wishes that he sets the moral tone of his times. This hope and expectation is often not expressed but it is ever present in the public consciousness. Dr. Singh is also uniquely placed for he has lived a life of absolute financial integrity. His frugal and austere living is what Gandhiji and our earlier leaders would have applauded. It is all the more creditable because he has so lived in times marked by consumerism. Also, through all the years of his public life no one has ever alleged that his family has taken advantage of his position. The Prime Minister is the formal leader of the country. It is now for him to judge and inform the nation whether the transactions between Robert Vadra and DLF meet the test of propriety or not. There is no doubt that the nation will respect his judgment.

Congress spokesmen and others are likely to dismiss the suggestion outright for they will claim that the Prime Minister is not the authority to take such action and there is no precedent of this nature and nor should one be set. But these are difficult times and they require radical approaches.

Bhishmapitamah was asked if the times fashion a ruler or a ruler fashions his times. After deep thought he said that it is the ruler who sets the tone of his age. The Prime Minister has put his stamp on the economic and commercial life of our country. Will he do so on its public morality?

(Vivek Katju is a diplomat who retired as Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, earlier this year.)

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