Monday, December 22, 2008

Cash for Votes Sham

The cash for votes scam has turned into a cash for votes sham of an investigation.

The display of wads of cash by opposition members of Parliament (MPs) during the trust vote on 22 July was a shameful moment for India’s parliamentary democracy. The findings of an in-house committee, chaired by Congress MP Kishore Chandra Deo, set up to investigate the allegations of payment of bribes are so poorly constructed and the conclusions so perfunctorily drawn that the dishonour of Parliament remains intact.

The allegation of the MPs from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who produced the cash notes in the Lok Sabha, was that they were paid by emissaries of wheeler-dealers from the ruling coalition. Much of the bribe-giving business was caught on tape in a sting operation, televised, albeit belatedly (which is another issue for exploration), by the news channel CNN-IBN. The MPS alleged that the bribes were given by Rajya Sabha member Amar Singh of the Samajwadi Party through intermediaries and that Ahmad Patel of the Congress was also involved. The parliamentary committee gave a clean chit to Amar Singh, and Ahmad Patel was also exonerated for want of evidence. The committee recommended investigation by “appropriate investigating agencies” of three (non-MP) individuals associated with the sting. The Lok Sabha Speaker, in turn, has referred the report to the Ministry of Home Affairs for action.

The prima facie conclusion that one can draw from the “sting video” carried out by a news channel on the allegations is that legislators and associated fellow-travellers belonging to the BJP were trying to set a trap for those willing to pay bribes – one of whom, a Sanjeev Saxena, is caught red-handed in the act. The committee saw it fit to recommend further investigation on the role of operators of the sting while showing little inclination to pursue those who were alleged to have used Saxena as the go-between – on the ground that the allegations on bribe payments could not be established.

That a technicality – a member of the Rajya Sabha cannot be summoned for questioning by a Lok Sabha committee – can excuse one of the prime accused, Amar Singh, from being interrogated by the panel points to the casual arguments used to build a case for eventual exoneration. Due diligence in examining the allegations through a study of phone records, investigation of the cash trail and perusal of other evidence has not been carried out. Surely a case can be made that the allegations of bribe-giving could have been better investigated through the aegis of an independent investigating agency, say, the Central Bureau of Investigation, rather than with the process followed and by the reasoning eventually offered by the parliamentary committee.

Two dissent notes were appended to the findings. Mohammad Salim representing the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Vijay Kumar Malhotra of the BJP pointed out the flaws in the proceedings and the partial nature of the process adopted by the committee. The reasoning that a committee of this nature was not empowered to launch a full investigation into the scandal then calls into question the very purpose of the constitution of this parliamentary committee.

The “cash for votes” scam is one of the many scandals that have shown Parliament in a very poor light. The working of this particular committee will only add to the growing cynicism over the parliamentary system. Graft, corruption, and abuse of public office are serious offences. That the parliamentary committee was so casual in its investigations and showed no serious interest in getting to the nub of the allegations and finding the real culprits brings out the level of nonchalance among those in positions of power towards issues such as corruption.

Only a truly independent investigation that covers all those allegedly involved in the scam/sting will assure a cynical public that Parliament will not brook such dishonour.

Editorial written for the Economic and Political Weekly

No comments: