Maharashtra PWD minister Chandrakant Patil has resigned as director in a Kolhapur-based firm, following a report in this newspaper pointing to at least six ministers of the BJP-Shiv Sena state government being on the boards of private companies. It’s nobody’s case that businessmen shouldn’t be in politics or be made ministers. The issue, rather, is about ministers using their position to benefit the business interests of firms in which they have stakes. It’s such possible conflicts of interest involving those holding public office that need to be avoided. Maharashtra’s public health minister is the chairman of an eye hospital, while a minister of state for housing is on the board of a construction firm — making these most amenable for abuse of official position.
Unfortunately, the others haven’t yet followed Patil’s example, choosing instead to brazen it out, citing flimsy technical grounds. Patil himself initially tried to wriggle out, stating that a minister divesting his business interests should be compensated through a suitable increase in salary. So much for those who claim “public service” as their primary motivation for entering politics.
India already 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, perhaps, come for India to also consider adopting a similar rule-based approach. This is important because even a perception of conflict of interest can undermine public confidence in government.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, last year, actually told MPs to stay away from parliamentary committees dealing with subjects in which they may have business interests. This followed his own party’s lawmaker, a bidi baron, being part of a panel looking into health risks from tobacco-use. Any law addressing conflict of interest should, at the minimum, require ministers and legislators to provide complete information of their business interests. Such full and upfront disclosure should also be made mandatory in every act of policymaking in which they are even remotely involved. We need businessmen in politics who can promote the cause of public policy, not their own financial interest.