THE LAWFILE

Politicians’ wealth

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A.G.Noorani in DAWN

THE people have every right to know the financial resources of persons in public life and how they came to acquire their wealth. India’s Prevention of Corruption Act 1988 makes it a criminal offence for a “public servant” to be in possession of “pecuniary resources or property disproportionate to his known sources of income”.

Once this fact is established, the onus shifts on the suspect to “satisfactorily account” for his wealth. The Act applies not only to ministers, civil servants, judges and persons in state-funded institutions, but also to “any person who holds an office by virtue of which he is authorised or required to perform any public duty”. That includes MPs and MLAs. The minimum sentence for the offence, called “criminal misconduct”, is one year; the maximum is seven years. No limit is prescribed for the fine that may be imposed. It can run up to crores. The Act, unfortunately, does not provide for confiscation of property.

In the 1960s, C. Rajagopalachari, India’s first Indian governor-general, dubbed politicians as gentlemen without any ostensible means of livelihood who are liable to be rounded up by any magistrate on a charge of vagrancy. Right now, the Indian politician’s standing in public esteem is pretty low.

On July 12, in Hyderabad, the Andhra Pradesh High Court ordered the Central Bureau of Investigation to conduct a preliminary inquiry into allegations of possession of “disproportionate assets” — the media’s shorthand for the definition in the Act — and dubious business deals against India’s richest MP, Jagan Mohan Reddy. He is son of Y.S.R. Reddy, the state’s powerful chief minister, who died in a helicopter crash. He did not enjoy an enviable reputation.

The case was initiated through a mere letter to the high court by a state minister. He alleged that the MP had amassed enormous wealth by misuse of power when his father was chief minister during 2004-9. The 38-year-old Jagan Mohan has declared assets worth Rs365.68 crores.

A former chief minister of Haryana, Om Prakash Chautala, is facing prosecution in a “disproportionate assets” case, in company with two sons, both MLAs. So is the present chief minister of Tamil Nadu, J. Jayalalithaa.

All MPs and MLAs are required by law to disclose, by affidavit on oath, at the time of filing their nomination papers for elections, information on four points; namely, their educational qualifications, past convictions or acquittals in a criminal case, any pending case in which the court has taken cognisance and his assets and liabilities as well of those of the spouse.

This requirement was imposed on May 2, 2002 by the Supreme Court of India on a petition filed by an Association for Democratic Reforms. There has been no comprehensive reform of election law since 1966. Shamed by the court order, parliament amended the law to give legislative sanction to those requirements imposed by the Supreme Court.

Legislation is necessary but no law can cure political malaise. In 2004, the electorate voted to the Lok Sabha (lower House of Parliament) of 542 members as many as 100 MPs who had been charge-sheeted in criminal cases. Some had been charged with rape, murder and dacoity. Last May, 825 MLAs were elected to the legislative assemblies of four states which went to the polls. The total self-declared value of their assets was Rs2,128 crore — 231 of them were into their second term. They had increased their assets by 169 per cent, on an average, between 2006 and 2011. Whether the increase was due to business acumen of sheer genius or less worthy skills is something they alone can explain. But no one has demanded that they all be asked to explain.

Two questions arise. Of what avail the disclosures, if the people voted for known criminals or the notoriously corrupt?

Secondly, must not the law follow up on the disclosures? The framing of charges against a person must itself be made a disqualification. As for the corrupt, surely a “disproportionate assets” case can be slapped on every legislator who, on his own disclosures, amassed wealth after his election. The onus of proving innocence then shifts on him.

This proves the wisdom of Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s words in the constituent assembly on Dec 31, 1948. As chairman of the drafting committee, he replied to a suggestion that disclosure of assets be made a constitutional obligation. He pointed out that there must be provision for a prosecution after the second disclosure arouses suspicion. That was done in 2002. But the situation has not improved, since the law enforcement is pathetic.

Evidently political parties need the corrupt to provide the moneys and criminals for use as strong men. The only effective check is exposure by the media; relentless and documented.

We need books of the like of The Triumph of the Political Class by Peter Oborne. He describes how “the political class” cutting across the parties, unites to enrich itself, pillage the state and claim special privileges. “MPs seem to think that their status demands special treatment at airports upgrades on flights, advantageous treatment, from commercial firms, while allowing them to display uncalled for rudeness to ordinary people.”

Financial disclosures only reveal the tip of the hideous iceberg; but enough to warn that the polity suffers from a malaise and the special privileges of the ‘political class’ must be removed.

Laws and courts can help only up to a point. The only effective cure is popular awareness and — self-assertion. It is an awesome responsibility on the media.

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