by Kuldip Nayar writing in the Navhind Times
NOT far from Indian Parliament House is the Jantar Mantar, our Hyde Park. The protestors sit on either side of the road to ventilate their grievance through the fiery speeches they make and the screaming banners they carry aloft. This is the closest they can reach Parliament which does not allow any demonstration within its precincts.
The two groups squatting on the strips of land along the road are the Bhopal gas victims and the Narmada Dam oustees. One has walked all the way from Bhopal to protest against the measly compensation. The other represents through their leader, Ms Medha Patkar, thousands of families which have not been rehabilitated after having been removed from their lands and homes to make place for a series of dams and waterways.
Those from Bhopal want the owner, a US company, to be tried for his criminal negligence. The Narmada Dam oustees demand that the different Supreme Court judgments and awards to be made good. The pronouncements say the uprooted have to be rehabilitated six months before they are disturbed. Both groups have been waiting for justice for more than 20 years. Both have been depending on the government’s fair play. Both have been expecting the promised rehabilitation package which has eluded many. Yet, both have not given up hope and expect their due from Parliament whose attention they want to catch from the Jantar Mantar Road.
Indeed, Parliament has been reconvened later this month. But the purpose is not to debate or decide on the future of the Bhopal gas victims or the Narmada Dam oustees. For Parliament, these are mundane issues which have been discussed many a time before. Its attention is focused on a law to ensure that the legislators at the Centre and in the states are not disqualified if they occupy an office of profit. The Election Commission has been a spoiler to point out that an office of profit does not go well with the status of a legislator.
However, ruling political parties have found the office handy. They have distributed it as a consolation prize either to silence their rowdy followers or to those who cannot be accommodated in the government when cabinet berths fall short. The practice hitherto is to mollify by offering the member chairmanship of a corporation or commission. It is the lure of authority in such positions that makes members to seek an office of profit.
In a country where a parliamentary constituency embraces nearly 12 lakh voters and a state assembly constituency roughly half the number, a legislator’s hands should be full. The constituencies are too large to get even one visit by a member in the five-year-long term.
Why should the member have an office which naturally will take a substantial part of his or her time? But a legislator’s consideration is to enjoy authority as ministers do. And, why not? The office provides a free chauffeur driven car, a government maintained house, free travel by air or train, a large staff and entertainment allowance without tax and the like. There is no salary but that is what a member draws from Parliament or assembly. The government must have created thousands of such posts from the days of independence. The Election Commission does not seem to have objected to the practice in the past.
Currently, it is taking notice of violations and as many as 100 cases of MPs and MLAs are pending before it. The Commission drew first blood when it disqualified Ms Jaya Bachchan, head of UP Films Division. So panicky was the reaction of other members that 40 of them resigned on a single day from the office they occupied. There are some positions which should not be considered as an office of profit. The occupants are doing a useful job. Take, for instance, the Jalianwalia Bagh Trust. Ms Sonia Gandhi has resigned from it. This is not called for. She should stay with the trust.
What is an office of profit? The Constitution does not define it. However, Article 102 which lists disqualifications for members has spelled out in a way. It says that “a person shall not be deemed to hold an office of profit under the government of India or the government of any state by reason only that he is a minister either from the Union or from such state.” This means that only ministers are exempt. The ruling parties have not followed this interpretation. In the early years of independence, violations were an exception. Today every Tom, Dick and Harry who has the pull, pecuniary or political, occupies one office or another. The states are even worse. Practically, all members of the ruling party or coalition have an office of profit.
A law, however comprehensive, will not be able to cover all offices of profit. Even when framed, it will be challenged in a court of law. Now that people know about the misuse of office, the criticism will follow every MP or MLA who holds it. It would be better for the ruling Congress and the other political parties not to have any legislation at all and let members work in the constituency which has returned them. In this way, the malfunctioning of money allocated for their constituency development (MPLADS) will also lessen.
However, the question before the nation is not whether a legislator can legally occupy an office of profit but whether it is morally correct for a member to do so when it is only a cover to give him authority and benefits. It is a pity that the leading lights of different parties — the Left is no exception — are keen to join hands to garner benefits from an office of profit without being exposed to legal complications. This is strange. All technical and bureaucratic objections have been raised not to allow the Bhopal gas victims and the Narmada Dam oustees to get their due but in the case of legislators, every rule is being stretched to see how they can retain an office of profit. Obviously, they want to have the cake and eat it too.
The BJP is neither concerned with the Bhopal gas victims nor the Narmada Dam oustees. It has no programme except to put spanners in the way of India’s development. Mr L K Advani feels that the ‘rath’ yatra is the only programme to attract attention. The BJP chief, Mr Rajnath Singh is new to the field of yatra and hence less vituperative. So his yatra is at low key. But whatever they are doing to promote the yatras, they are missing moral issues like Bhopal gas victims and the Narmada Dam oustees. The party’s interest in the office of profit is because its government in the state can continue to play havoc.