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Party inquiries

November 24, 2012

POLITICAL parties observe double standards. They fiercely guard their own autonomy and reject any demands for transparency or accountability. But they insist that these very values be respected in actions by the government — except when they are themselves in power.

Double standards are particularly in play when the party’s internal working reveals scandalous behaviour. It resents the media’s legitimate exposure of the scandal and the public’s right to know. Its defence is as old as it is untenable; namely that it is an ‘internal’ matter.

India witnessed a graphic demonstration of the play of double standards recently in the deliberations of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The facts were set out in the last column. Briefly, it was revealed that the BJP’s president Nitin Gadkari’s concern Purti Company had received money from companies which hardly existed. Where did he get the crores from? Suspicions of money laundering were freely aired.

The BJP’s mentor, the militant Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), intervened to protect its protégé, Gadkari. An RSS member who was a chartered accountant was sent to conduct an internal ‘probe’. S. Gurumurthy complied and informed the BJP’s leadership, on Nov 6, that Gadkari was neither legally nor morally guilty. The BJP leadership obediently accepted his verdict. Gurumurthy’s report has not been published.

A political party is a public enterprise and the public has every right to inspect its workings if there is any reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. There is a strict duty on the leaders of a party if serious wrongdoing is reasonably suspected, whether financial or other.

Political parties run two of the three wings of the state, the executive and the legislature. The people are entitled to take notice of the stench of corruption within this system — be it in the executive, the legislature or in a political party and to demand that the standards of transparency and accountability be applied uniformly to all three. Suspicion of wrongdoing in a political party is not a domestic affair.

Even in that haven of private enterprise, the United States of America, the Supreme Court had perforce to propound the doctrine that a business “affected with a public interest” is amenable to state regulation.

A political party is simply an association whose very raison d’être is to perform public functions and discharge public duties.

Which is why laws governing the functioning of political parties are enacted. Germany’s basic law gives political parties a constitutional recognition. Article 21 imposes clear duties on them: “The parties shall help form the political will of the people.

They may be freely established. Their internal organisation shall conform to democratic principles. They shall publicly account for the sources and use of their funds and for their assets. …Details shall be the subject of federal laws.”

Accordingly, in 1968, the law on political parties (Parteiengesetz) was enacted. It comprises 41 articles, divided into seven chapters dealing with ‘internal organisation’; ‘nomination of candidates for election’; ‘public financing’ (reimbursement of election campaign expenses); ‘presentation of accounts’; and miscellaneous provisions. It obligates political parties to maintain a written constitution, rules, and programmes. The rights of members are defined.

Parties which function undemocratically set up kangaroo courts and conduct inquiries ignoring the rules of fair play. Party bosses protect their own, no matter how corrupt. They cannot be trusted to hold fair inquiries. In any case, there is a clear public interest in independent probes.

In India bad precedents were set, in the early years of independence, of party inquiries into charges of malfeasance against prominent members. When on April 26, 1948 a charge-sheet was submitted to the Congress president against ministers in the province of Madras, he sent the general secretary to inquire whether a prima facie case existed.

Next, the chief minister of Madras was asked to inquire into the matter. Finally a committee of three seniors — Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad — was set up. It exonerated the chief minister T. Prakasam.

Next came the famous jeep scandal in which charges were made against India’s high commissioner in London, V.K. Krishna Menon. The Congress parliamentary party set up a committee to inquire into the charges though they were levelled against an official of the state, not of the party alone. Predictably, Menon escaped unscathed. The committee’s report was never published.

All this happened in 1950-51.

Not every wrong constitutes a criminal offence. In public law, offences have come to be defined which are grave enough to invite punishment though they are not violative of criminal law. Offences of abuse of power and misfeasance, for instance. In this category surely fall business dealings by a party official which incur reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.

The great constitutional lawyer Sir Ivor Jennings opined in his classic Cabinet Government that “the most elementary qualification demanded of a minister is honesty and incorruptibility. It is, however, necessary not only that he should possess this qualification but, also that he should appear to possess it”. In our day and age this sound rule applies as much to holders of posts in a political party as it does to holders of office in government.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.