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Look beyond Coalgate, look at elections

Kanchan GuptaThe Monsoon Session of Parliament was a washout with little or no legislative business transacted. Worse, at least one important Bill, on sexual harassment in the workplace, was introduced in the Lok Sabha and deemed to have been passed (by a voice vote, an impossibility in the din raised by the Opposition) without even a word being spoken on the proposed law’s clauses by our national law-makers. It just goes to show how seriously our MPs take the issue of sexual harassment of women. Had it not been so, they would have disallowed its passage without a full debate.

The chattering classes, which rarely vote in elections and are blissfully ignorant of how Parliament (or any other institution) functions in this country, have been prompt in blaming the Opposition, namely the BJP, for the stalemate that came to dominate the Monsoon Session just as a standoff between the Congress and the BJP had killed the Winter Session last year. But it would be utterly foolish to blame the Opposition alone – beyond a point the façade of debate, discussion and deliberation serves nobody’s interest, least of all Parliament’s.

Look at it this way. Had the BJP agreed to participate in a debate on Coalgate instead of stalling Parliament, would it have resulted in action against those who have gained, or are perceived to have gained, in an illicit manner from the Government’s largesse by way of coal blocks allocated for a pittance? Debate over, the Government would have swept the issue under the proverbial carpet and that’s the last we would have heard of the scandal.

Let us not forget that but for a belligerent Opposition, those behind the Great 2G Spectrum Robbery would have gone unpunished and A Raja would have still been the Telecom Minister merrily hawking 3G and 4G to anybody willing to grease his palms. This is not to suggest that disruptive tactics are the best, or desirable, means of forcing the Government’s hands, but to underscore the harsh reality that this is the only way precipitate action can be ensured to bring politicians and bureaucrats guilty of indulging in corrupt practises to book.

To harp on the need for debate, or to berate the Opposition for not participating in a debate, is therefore disingenuous. It is as insincere as the Prime Minister reading out the same old tired and hackneyed statement that there has been no theft under his watch, that all charges of wrong-doing are patently false, and that the Opposition is exaggerating something that does not merit either comment or scrutiny. Better was expected from Manmohan Singh than feigned ignorance and manufactured hurt.

That said, it’s a pity and a shame that nobody is talking of the malaise called corruption which continues to spread, like terminal cancer, across society and state, extracting a terrible toll. Punishing the beneficiaries of Coalgate as well as those who doled out benefits to their cronies is no doubt required. But that alone will not halt the spread of the rot.

To heal this corrosive ailment we need to address the linkage between corruption and political funding – one feeds on the other. Till such time the issue of political funding for legitimate politics is not resolved, and parties are held accountable for the money they spend, scams and scandals will continue to happen, perhaps more frequently.

Contrary to popular belief, politicians do not steal only because it affords them the good life that everybody aspires for. Most steal because money plays a crucial role in influencing power equations and exercising choices both within and outside Parliament House, especially during elections.

We should, therefore, think of ways and means to strike at the root of the problem. I have often argued that the best way to avoid political corruption, or at least to put a leash on it, is to do away with our present system of elections. If we were to switchover to the proportionate representations system then the need for massive political funding would automatically decline.

Or we could raise the limit on election spending and make it more realistic while insisting on transparent political funding. It is absurd to have a limit of Rs 40 lakh on election expenditure for a Lok Sabha constituency and Rs 16 lakh for an Assembly constituency. The real cost of contesting elections is many times higher than the Election Commission mandated limit, and that expenditure is met with money acquired through corrupt means. Since it does not have to be accounted for, there is no need to account for its source or sources either.

When the bedrock of democracy is weakened in so grotesque a manner, it’s silly to worry about debates in Parliament. I’d much rather rage about the former.

— The writer is a journalist,┬ápolitical analyst & activist

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