30 October 2011

Asset declaration by candidates necessary but not sufficient

A question is put to John Reed (played by Warren Beatty) in ‘Reds’, the classic film based on Reed’s authoritative account of the Russian Revolution, ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’: ‘Mr Reed, what do you think this war is about?’  Reed, a well-known journalist who had just returned to New York after covering the Mexican Revolution for the Metropolitan Magazine and the war referred to was World War I.  Reed stood up and the audience attending the lavish dinner party fell silent, expecting a profound analysis.  He offered a one-word answer: ‘profit!’

Had John Reed been asked what politics is about today he might give the same answer.  Profit.  Money. Making-money.  A lot of money.  That’s what politics is about once manifestos are forgotten, posters and cut-outs removed, leaflets recycled and rhetoric becomes a dim memory.  Candidates and parties spend millions of rupees to boost image and convince the voters that they and they alone can solve their burning problems.  They are all honest, clean, skillful, energetic and wise.  Or so they claim.  If all this was true then we would be living in a perfect society and in physical and social landscapes devoid of crime, squalor, wastage, preventable diseases and wastage.  We do not, alas!
If it was only about empty rhetoric that is soon forgotten and non-delivery of promises, it would still be sufferable. The truth is that for all the grand claims and pronouncements, not only does nothing concrete materialize by way of enhancing the overall well-being of the population.  Why then should anyone contest?  If they were honest and if they realize they just cannot deliver, they could admit incompetence and resign or at least choose not to re-contest.  This hardly ever happens.  We are forced to conclude, given the fact that the salaries and other legal benefits of holding office are insignificant compared with amounts spent on campaigns, that Reed’s observation is eminently applicable to politicians.
Politics is like a special machine where someone who looks pious, well-meaning, sincere and capable goes in and a fat, arrogant, self-satisfied and wealthy individual comes out.  The arrogance and body shape can be forgiven, but not wealth-accumulation.  Not in a democracy that can claim to be ‘functional’. 
It is in this context that a recent statement made by the Elections Commissioner, Mahinda Desapriya regarding asset declaration by candidates needs to be examined carefully.  Mr. Desapriya has sought powers to disqualify any candidate failing to declare assets prior to submitting nominations.  He states that while most candidates had complied with the requirement, some are yet to come clean. 
What is important, however, is not mere asset declaration but a meticulous examination of declaration to test for falsification.  If the relevant laws do not require honesty in declaration and the powers to verify claim, and if there are no legal mechanisms to assess assets acquired while in office, then obtaining asset-declaration is nothing more than eyewash. 
It has to be kept in mind that crooks are resourceful creatures and tend to have a better understanding of the law than the average citizen and as such are generally educated about all the loopholes as well.  There are many ways to hide assets and many ways to explain wealth acquisition, after all.  As things stand, unless the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption makes a move, elected candidate just move on to the next election.  In the very least, there is no mechanism to note differences in asset endowment of candidates up for re-election and therefore no queries seeking explanation for difference if any.
What is required then is a more robust set of laws so that politics ceases to be another name for profiteering through commissions, favours and bribes. What is required also is a proper and independent auditing mechanism.  Most importantly, what is required is hawk-eye vigilance on the part of the citizenry.  It must be noted that unfortunately a culture has developed where the voter expect the voted to make bucks after being elected.  This is a ‘par for the course’ that helps make the general voting population deserving of the kinds of governments and representatives they get saddled with post-election. 
If the public is complacent, then the crooks who see politics as buck-making vocation cannot be expected to be on their toes, forget about enacting laws that would inhibit such operations.    
The Elections Commissioner has not laid it out as thick as the general public would like, but he’s come out and said something that needed to be said.  It is brave of him and he needs to be supported at all levels and by all stakeholders.  If this is not done we will continue to caricature novice parliamentarians and other elected representatives as scrawny hopefuls who, with time, are drawn as smug and obnoxious fatties.  The people will laugh but the politicians will continue to have the last laugh.  It will continue to be raucous and unpalatable, and will extend the validity of Reedesque comment regarding the purpose of politics, namely, ‘profit’. 

[Read 'The Nation'; the above is the editorial, October 30, 2011]