At a function last week to mark two years of his government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about the changes ushered in since the NDA came to power in May 2014 through good governance while promising to root out corruption. But the controversy involving a senior minister of the BJP in one of the largest states where the party is in power threatens to take some sheen off this claim. The case involves purchase of a three-acre plot near Pune by Maharashtra Revenue Minister Eknath Khadse’s wife, Mandakini, and son-in-law, Girish Chaudhari, on April 27 this year for Rs 3.75 crore. The charge the minister is facing is that even while a case was pending in the high court, the land was sold to Khadse’s family and that the minister himself had held a meeting with officials of the state agency, the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation, and from his own department, on the compensation to be given to the original owner under the state Land Acquisition Act in the third week of March, weeks before the transaction, as a report in The Indian Express has revealed. Shockingly, Khadse has admitted to having convened the meeting while going on to defend himself saying that as long as the deal was legally sound, he and his family members were within their rights as private citizens to purchase the land. But the minister has erred, and gravely at that, in participating in a matter which has a material impact on his family’s interests — a clear conflict of interest.
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In most countries, this would have invited penalties and led to a course correction. Khadse is brazening it out but surely this should attract action from his party beyond just a rebuke. Indeed, he should be asked to quit. That’s because the minister, who is already facing multiple charges, did not even recuse himself or make his interests public in the interests of transparency — a virtue his party has been highlighting as an achievement in its two years in office. This comes on top of earlier cases of conflict of interest involving at least six ministers in the Maharashtra government — three of whom were forced to quit their positions on the boards of private firms after a report published in this newspaper in March this year.
The callous attitude on conflict of interest issues featuring politicians, civil servants and corporate India is worrying. India currently has a model code of conduct which says that any minister within two months of assuming office should sever all connection with the conduct and management of any business in which he previously had an interest. But this is not enforceable, unlike Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act and the US’s basic criminal conflict of interest statute, which explicitly prohibit public officials from being involved in government decisions affecting their personal financial interests. The time has come for India to consider adopting a similar rule-based approach.