Jul 25, 2008

Columnists - Rajdeep Sardesai

Cash Strapped

India’s first trust vote in the age of 24-hour news television transformed parliamentary debate into a reality show. The politicians were the star performers while the nation played judge and audience. The drama in Parliament was hilarious and tragic by turn. Lakhs of rupees were suddenly unveiled and scattered on the Speaker’s table inside the Lok Sabha. The voting technology failed to rise to the occasion. Some MPs were wheeled into the House on stretchers. Lalu Prasad Yadav had the House in splits when he confessed his not-so-secret desire to be Prime Minister. Yet, a single question remained: is parliamentary democracy being strengthened by what we have observed this week?
Take the case of the convicted MPs who were given a week off from their prison cells to come and vote. While there is seemingly no legal bar on a convicted MP from voting, there are ethical questions that must be raised when those convicted of crimes like murder can decide the destiny of Parliament. In a trust vote where every vote counts, political parties may claim they have every right to rope in their Shahabuddins and Pappu Yadavs. After all, whether we like it or not, they are elected by the people. But just as the law does not bar them from entering Parliament, is there a rule that makes it mandatory for them to be present during a confidence vote? A government can be defeated in Parliament during a Finance Bill. Does that mean that every time a Finance Bill is being put to vote, our convicted MPs should get a break from jail?
Indeed, the law versus morality question has now become central to parliamentary practices. Legally, the government won the confidence vote. But is there a moral content to our politics that must rise above the law? Ten members abstained from the trust vote; another half a dozen cross-voted. How many of these were conscientious objectors to their party line, and how many were simply switching sides because of the monetary benefits to be gained? Those MPs who voted against the whip have been expelled. But the irony is that the expelled MP doesn’t lose his House membership, while a defector is almost certainly guaranteed a ticket by his new party in the next election. What price then the anti-defection law that was designed to prevent the retail trade in politicians?
In the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) Bribery Case, the Supreme Court gave a widely criticised judgment that said that any action by any member in the House could not be subject to judicial scrutiny, thus legitimising corruption. Effectively, it meant that an MP could claim immunity for having cross-voted, despite substantive evidence that he had done so under the influence of money. Is it any wonder that we have witnessed a possible sequel to JMM Part I 15 years after the original sin?
Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to ensure that the ‘JMMisation’ of politics is stopped. The political system is fragmented and the role of the smaller parties is increasing. For them, politics is a bargaining counter as exemplified perhaps by Ajit Singh who switched sides thrice in the last week.
The smaller parties have a committed vote base and thus as the so-called ‘national parties’ begin to shrink, can exercise a disproportionate influence within a coalitional arrangement. Moreover, since these parties are tightly controlled by individuals, it’s easy to do business with them: strike a deal with the person at the top and the rest will fall in line.
Has anyone ever asked Ajit Singh’s MPs for their opinion on the stand their leader has taken?
Indeed, every national party is a willing participant in the auctioning of MPs and is no more or less corruptible than its rival. The Congress-led UPA may have shown itself to be a little more desperate in the survival stakes in this trust vote, but are we to believe that the NDA did not strike its own bargains with regional parties when it was in power? The DMKs, the Mayawatis, the Chautalas, the JMMs have all been courted by the BJP at some time or the other. In a sense, the JMMisation is a price that must be paid by a de-ideologised political system where the lines between means and ends have been totally blurred.
The law alone offers no solutions. Legally, there is no constitutional bar on Shibu Soren, who has had his life sentence in the Shashinath Jha murder case stayed, from being sworn in as a Cabinet minister for the third time in the last five years. But morality demands that he stay away from office till his name is fully cleared by the courts. Yet, even this is not enough.What is actually needed is a bold new initiative to clean up the entire relationship between cash and politicians. Sunlight, it is said, is the best disinfectant and it is perhaps time that political parties openly acknowledge that our political system is linked to hard cash. Cash is needed to fight elections. Cash is needed to keep cadres loyal. So, how is this cash to be legitimised and the taint of ‘dirty money’ removed?
When a Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama raise billions of dollars in their campaigns, the money is accounted for, transparent and public. The biggest lesson of ‘Trust-Vote-On-Television’ is that it has shown up money power in massive 24 hour technicolour. What will our politicians do? Close their eyes and insist on a phoney Mahatma-hood? Or will politicians put their heads together and honestly work out transparent, open and public methods of political funding. It is an urgent, indeed critical need.
But amidst the darkness, there is some light. In a debate marked by bitterness, one speech stood out: Omar Abdullah’s passionate espousal of patriotism as an Indian and Kashmiri Muslim. Abdullah Jr did what few politicians have the courage to do: admitted that he had made a mistake by not resigning from the NDA government after the Gujarat riots. He set the tone for honest moral cleansing, an example his senior colleagues in the House would do well to follow.
Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-chief, IBN Network

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