Of split personalities

Conflict of interests has dogged politicians down the ages.

History and legend are rife with instances of kings, warriors, kshatriyas and sundry members of the political class scratching their heads at the crossroads of public good and private priorities; many have been celebrated and many demonised too, depending upon the path they pursued as also the perspective of posterity. Arjuna’s classic confusion elicited from the Lord, Bharath’s greatest treasure of eternal wisdom, the Gita. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an immortal personification of such a royal dilemma. Julius Caesar may have been an honourable man, but to Brutus who loved Rome more, JC was eminently dispensable ‘for the sake of the nation-state’.

A typical definition runs thus: ‘Conflict of Interest (CoI) occurs when an individual or organisation is involved in multiple interests, one of which could possibly corrupt the motivation for an act in the other’. Entrustment of fiduciary duties and expectation of impartiality are the two presumptions behind the concept of CoI. This phenomenon haunts today’s political tribe too. Only that while conflict situations exist theoretically, there is no moral confusion of the type that infected Arjuna or Hamlet. Our politicos invariably resolve such conflicts in favour of private gain! Confluence, not conflict, of interests, is a practiced art with them. Indeed, if some political deed is seemingly in public good, one should actually get suspicious and search deeper for hidden agendas. The skin-thick veneer will most likely come off to reveal sordid skeletons. Many of the troubling happenings in the present and immediate past can be traced to this conflict of interests and their settlement to the detriment of public good. Duty above personal preferences, the much touted hallmark of a public office, can make for a punch dialogue in a V’kanth movie, but is deemed bad policy for practical purposes like position and pelf.

CoI is being bandied about in the raging IPL-Tharoor-Modi imbroglio. We will get to the ministerial malfeasance soon enough. Now, what can one expect of a fly-by-night, upstart gold-digger like Lalit Modi? By some strange circumstances, Modi came to enjoy absolute power to dispense teams as he pleased. It is no secret that BCCI office-bearers are themselves team owners and BCCI selectors doubled up as mascots for those teams, without an eyelid batting at the glaring conflict of interests. Can a lesser soul like LModi be expected to suffer a pang of conscience, particularly when billions are floating around? His beneficiaries too are no paragons either, but businessmen out to make a fast buck and also get some minutes of fame on the sly. Clearly, the first founding rule of the IPL was the familiar mutual back-scratching code: ‘You don’t tell, I don’t tell’! The ‘conflict’ is because this code was breached!

Tharoor’s is the latest of the sordid stories of politicians stacking their private nests under the cover of public interest. Claiming to bat for Kerala from inside the Pavilion is just not cricket and it fooled none either. But to be fair, there are pioneers and peers in this foul game, who have done worse and got away. From the prime proxy at the top of the cabinet, not to speak of the puppeteer lurking behind the purdah, to other ministerial eminences, hardly anyone is above board vis-a-vis conflict of interest. Rather, UPA, NDA or before, many ministers have had vested and varied personal interests in matters pertaining to their ministry. M Singh’s nuclear obsession raised many eyebrows, not to speak of the Mr Clean’s dirty linen getting washed in public in Parli during the dubious ‘trust’ vote. Aviation ministers are suspected to be investors in airline companies. Surface Transport and Shipping ministers own benami shipping lines and roadways that get government contracts. The race for tele and IT portfolios from down south have always smacked of entrenched interests. Many past and present ministers, across party lines are so neck deep in BCCI politics that their motives and public pronouncements are most suspect. The forthcoming Commonwealth games is a Pandora’s box whose lid may come off any time. Really, Tharoor is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg!

A recent article in an English daily (sent to me by a reader) talks of the Home Minister’s ‘vested interest’ in finishing off the Maoists. Of course, it is our grouse that he is not actually doing that, but it is alleged that PC’s keenness to eradicate the extremists from the mineral rich areas they dominate is because he is committed to some multi-national mining corporations who are waiting in the wings to swoop down! And to substantiate the charges, the article, inter alia, claims that PC was on the board of one such company, before he became the FM in 2004. Of course, in this case one hopes for a half-truth, ie, the first half about finishing off the Maoists, coming true!

But this raises a key question on CoI. What about ministers who were previously Supreme Court lawyers or some such professionals whose past connections can come to haunt now? For instance there are ministers who represented many discredited companies, like Enron. In Tharoor’s case itself, it was his dubious Dubai link that felled him! There are IAS officers (MS Gill, for eg) who have, post retirement, joined political parties that they served as bureaucrats. Does it not raise questions about their leanings and actions while in service? Can these men, in their political avatars as public samaritans, shed their baggage? Like Tharoor, many have paid the price too, but only seemingly and temporarily. PC himself had to quit the Union Cabinet on conflict of interest when the Fairgrowth financial scandal erupted in the early nineties. But he was back soon, and has come a long way since then, picking up quite a clientele en route, when not in power! The office of profit issue that brought out the saint in Sonia one more time is another instance of CoI getting a sham gesture. She, unwittingly, unleashed a boomerang and had to resign, only to become an MP within months; a queer case of a sacrificer taking back something supposed to be sacrificed! So, expect a Tharoor replay as soon as the IPL dust settles down and the sweat dries up on his equity. With politicos, short sabbaticals can resolve all such conflicts!

Conflict of interest is inherent in life, much so in public life and cannot be wished away. If not skeletons, at least a bone or two will adorn everyone’s past, thereby precluding the whole of humanity from public positions. Shastras to statutes have agitated on how to deal with this. But while Lord Krishna could rely on Arjuna to place dharma above personal feelings, today’s laws, from constitutions to corporate, are less trusting of humanity and advocate a safer course. Disclosure of such interests and recusal from such situations are the reigning golden rules. Obviously, these rules don’t apply to those who are in the business of dealing in geese that lay golden eggs!

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Jawahar T R