WikiLeaks continues to amuse rather than enlighten us. The latest leaks took us back to the cash-for-votes scandal of 2008, when the Congress and allies desperately sought the support of small parties to survive a confidence vote after the Indo-US nuclear deal. At that time, BJP MPs displayed huge stacks of currency allegedly offered by Amar Singh, then a member of the Samajwadi Party, to help the government survive.
The Hindu, media comrade of the CPM, has through WikiLeaks uncovered a note saying a US diplomat was told by a junior Congress sidekick that chests full of cash were ready to bribe MPs. Indeed, it said four MPs of Ajit Singh’s party had already been bribed.
This caused a fresh uproar in Parliament last week. Ajit Singh protested that he had three MPs at the time, not four, and they had actually voted against the Congress government. Cynics will ask whether he got a better offer from the other side.
Congress stalwarts have denied the WikiLeaks allegations. Some have taken refuge in the technicality that events of the 14th Lok Sabha cannot be discussed in the 15th Lok Sabha. This will convince nobody. The public rightly regards not just Congressmen but all politicians as crooks, and sees politics as a big business where money and ministerships are routinely used to make or break governments. Nothing new about it, and no confirmation needed from Wiki-Leaks.
The BJP and CPM are trying to take the high moral ground. Yet they were among the parties that started making and breaking governments through the lure of office and lucre in the late 1960s. Non-Congress parties in several states backed Congress defectors to form new coalition governments. Two-way defections soon followed, leading to the phrase “Aya Ram, Gaya Ram.” Every party was soon neck-deep in the muck. We constantly hear one bunch of opportunists accusing another of criminality and immorality. But no party has clean hands.
The Left has its own agenda of trying to win the cold war long after the death of the USSR. It wants to paint the Congress government as a US lackey, and will happily abandon its principles and join hands with dubious characters to derail Indo-US relations. In the 2008 confidence vote, it forgot its objections to BJP communalism and joined hands with it. The CPM was once a staunch secularist, and played a heartwarming role in combating Sikh extremism in Punjab. But it now appeals to low Muslim communalists, exemplified in its hounding out of Taslima Nasreen and wooing of Coimbatore bomber Madani. It sought to make foreign relations communal in the 2009 general election by portraying India’s vote against Iran in the Security Council as an anti-Muslim plot hatched with the US. However, voters did not buy this pathetic mix of cold war and communal rhetoric, and thrashed the CPM at the polls, while voting back the Congress.
Last week’s row in Parliament is distracting attention from the real job that lies ahead. Former prime minister Narasimha Rao survived a confidence vote by acquiring the support of three MPs of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha. These gentlemen were naïve enough to deposit Rs 1 crore apiece in cash in their bank accounts, and were caught by the police. But the Supreme Court then held that voting for any reason whatsoever in the Lok Sabha was covered by privileges of Parliament, which gave MPs immunity from the normal laws of the land. So, MPs taking cash for votes could not be prosecuted.
When the Constitution was formulated, it provided that Parliament should codify its own privileges, laying down precisely which acts would be immune from prosecution or civil suits. More than 60 years later, Parliament has not yet done so. MPs of all parties prefer their existing immunity for all actions. This is the real scandal, and no party or newspaper is highlighting it.
We need to get beyond finger pointing to true morality and justice. The Lok Sabha needs to codify its privileges swiftly, providing immunity only for free speech in Parliament, not for any other action such as voting for cash or office. Indeed, it should provide that all criminal cases against MPs are heard first and foremost, so that parliamentarians are held to a higher standard than others, not a lower one. If the BJP and CPM are serious about improving political morality, they must launch an immediate campaign to codify and narrow parliamentary privileges. If they fail to do so, their talk of morality will stand exposed as pure hypocrisy.